7 Facts About the Measles

Abid Katib, Getty Images
Abid Katib, Getty Images

The measles used to be one of the world’s most common childhood diseases. Since the introduction of the measles vaccine, however, the disease is rarely seen in the U.S. But people have a reason to still feel cautious about what might seem like an old-timey affliction: Between January and July 14, 2018, there were 107 reported cases of the measles across 21 states and Washington, D.C. The year before, 118 people from 15 different states (and D.C.) contracted the disease. Here are seven things to know about the infectious respiratory illness.

1. EVERYONE USED TO GET IT.

There was a time not so long ago when getting measles was a near ubiquitous part of childhood. In the 4th century CE, Chinese alchemist Ko Hung wrote of the differences between smallpox and measles, and the disease was described in the 9th century by the famous Persian physician Rhazes. There were major epidemics of the disease in the 11th and 12th centuries [PDF].

In the years before the first licensed measles vaccination appeared in the U.S. in 1963, an estimated 90 percent of children caught the measles before they were 15. The disease was a leading cause of death for children—and in some places without access to vaccinations and medical care, it still is. Today, up to 5 percent of children in places without access to good medical care die of the measles annually.

The CDC estimates that prior to the existence of the vaccine, there were between 3 and 4 million measles cases in the U.S. per year, approximately 400 to 500 of them fatal—but vaccinations have reduced the prevalence of the disease by 99 percent. In some years, less than 100 people contract the disease in the U.S.

2. IT’S HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS.

The measles virus is considered one of the most contagious viruses around: Without vaccination, around 90 percent of people who are exposed to the virus will become infected.

The disease is caused by the spread of a type of virus called morbillivirus, which can spread through the air via breathing, coughing, or sneezing. The virus can live in the air for up to two hours after an infected person coughed—meaning that you don’t necessarily need to be standing next to someone with the measles to get it from them.

3. IT CAN CAUSE MORE THAN JUST A RASH.

A person exposed to measles will begin to show symptoms seven to 14 days after exposure. The disease presents itself with symptoms like coughing, congestion, fever, and most famously, a full-body skin rash. But a third of measles cases involve complications ranging from diarrhea to pneumonia, brain swelling, and coma. Pneumonia causes around 60 percent of fatalities when it comes to measles complications.

Children under 5 are particularly at risk of getting complications and dying from the disease. One in 10 will contract an ear infection, possibly leading to permanent hearing damage, and one in 20 will get pneumonia. One or two out of every 1000 kids who contract the measles will die, according to the CDC, many from pneumonia

4. THE VACCINE IS VERY EFFECTIVE.

The measles is combined with vaccines against two other diseases—mumps and rubella—and when administered as designed, it's incredibly effective. Experts recommend that children get their first dose of the MMR vaccine on their first birthday (but not before). Then, they should get the second dose before they enter kindergarten. If a child doesn’t get vaccinated before they’re 12, they should still get the vaccine: two doses a month apart. In most cases, those two doses of the vaccine should be enough to give you immunity for life (although some experts are now cautioning booster shots may be a good idea for some adults).

If you’re exposed to the virus and haven’t been vaccinated, an immediate dose of the vaccine can provide some protection from the disease, as long as you get it within 72 hours of exposure.

5. IT’S CONSIDERED ELIMINATED IN THE U.S. …

Thanks to effective vaccinations, as of 2000, measles is no longer a threat in the U.S., according to the CDC’s standards. The disease is considered eliminated, which means that it hasn’t been continuously transmitted in a specific geographical location for at least a year. So even if there’s the occasional outbreak of cases, it’s considered eliminated because it’s not a constant threat anymore. In 2016, the World Health Organization declared the disease to be eliminated across the entirety of North and South America.

6. ... BUT YOU SHOULD STILL GET VACCINATED.

Measles isn’t prevalent in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean you can skip your vaccinations: Though home-grown measles has been eliminated, people in the U.S. still come down with it. That’s because measles is still a major issue elsewhere in the world, and travelers can bring it home with them, spreading it to unvaccinated populations in the U.S.

That includes babies. Children under 5 are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to measles infections, but babies aren’t generally vaccinated until they’re 12 months old (the CDC recommends that before international travel, “infants 6 months through 11 months of age should receive one dose of MMR vaccine” and then get a shot again when they’re a little older). That makes it incredibly important for everyone around them to be vaccinated, so that the disease can’t spread.

In addition to inoculating individuals against diseases, vaccines operate on the principle of herd immunity. When nearly an entire population is vaccinated, it’s very hard for the disease to spread. That protects people who aren’t inoculated, like babies, or people whose bodies didn’t respond to the vaccine for whatever reason.

7. PEOPLE STILL GET MEASLES IN AMERICA.

Since measles was declared eliminated in 2000, there have been relatively few cases reported here, but a significant number of people have caught the disease in the past few years. In 2004, there were just 37 cases of measles reported in the U.S. Ten years later, in 2014, there were 667—most of whom were people who weren’t vaccinated. (That number was unusually high, and went down to 188 cases the next year.)

The CDC blames recent measles outbreaks on low rates of vaccination. One 2016 review of measles studies found that out of 970 measles cases, almost 42 percent of patients had opted out of getting the vaccine for non-medical reasons.

Europe has also seen a surge in measles cases in the last few years. Between 2016 and 2017, measles cases in Europe quadrupled, from 5273 cases to more than 21,000, according to the World Health Organization. Thirty-five of those 21,000 people died from the disease. This is bad news for Americans, too, since most U.S. measles cases can be linked back to travelers coming into the U.S. from places like Europe. So get your vaccinations!

8 Cures That Did More Harm Than Good

iStock.com/powerofforever
iStock.com/powerofforever

No one likes to be sick or suffering. But in the course of trying to find new cures for medical problems, or perceived medical problems, we’ve stumbled more than a few times. Most of the time, treatments simply didn't work and were no more harmful than what they were meant to “cure.” Sometimes, though, the medicine was even worse than the condition itself.

1. RAW MEAT AND HOG FAT FOR A RABIES BITE

To his credit, Pliny the Elder discounted many purely magical folk cures in his Natural Histories (not to mention writing entire chapters against the eating of infant brains). He was also a proponent of several treatments which we now know to have some merit, such as aloe vera to dress burns.

Still, his advice was often more questionable than credible. His cures for bites from a mad (rabid) human or dog were the same—raw veal or she-goat dung placed over the wound for no less than four days, while the patient takes only lime and hog’s fat internally. If this doesn’t sound so bad, imagine eating nothing but antacids and lard, while having an open wound get more and more infected. If you weren’t dead by the time the rabies actually manifested, you probably wished you were.

2. SMACKING A BIBLE ON A GANGLION CYST

Hit them with a book. A heavy book. The use of Bibles to cure ganglion cysts provided the colloquial terms for this benign lump on the hand or wrist: Bible cysts, Gideon’s disease, or Bible bumps.

Really, you shouldn’t do this, however. While in some circumstances the lump may disappear or be reabsorbed after being thwacked, this method of treatment is second only to puncturing them in an unsterile environment when it comes to causing recurrence and complications. Most ganglion cysts cause no complications on their own, and many will disappear after a few months if left alone [PDF].

3. WHIPPING FOR "DRAPETOMANIA" OR "DYSAETHESIA AETHIOPICA"

Drapetomania and dysaethesia aethiopica were two different but related “conditions” that one Samuel Cartwright saw as prevalent among slaves during the mid-19th century. Drapetomania supposedly caused an “insanity” that drove slaves to run away, while dysaethesia aethiopica caused “partial numbness of the skin,” and “great hebetude” (mental dullness and lethargy).

To cure either condition, you needed only to whip the patient. The concept caught on in the South, as it lent an air of science and self-justification to slave owners—Cartwright’s work suggested that the only moral thing to do was to keep slaves in their place for their own good, lest they become afflicted with one of these conditions (he noted how “common” dysaethesia aethiopica was among “Free Negros”). Of course, this quackery was not hard to spot by his contemporaries outside of the South. Frederick Douglass once sarcastically remarked that, since white indentured servants run away, too, “drapetomania” was probably a European condition that had been introduced to Africans by white slave traders.

4. SMOKING FOR ASTHMA

Smoke a cigarette! Not a tobacco cigarette (though those were advertised as “healthy” for decades), but an herbal remedy. While a few components of these cigarettes may have caused a degree of temporary relief for those with bronchitis or asthma, the long-term effects of smoking anything are known to be detrimental, especially to those whose lungs are already diseased. 

Long-term effects aside, many of the “asthma cigarettes” contained ingredients that were immediately and seriously harmful. Several brands boasted adding arsenic to their papers. Two of the staple ingredients for many companies were stramonium, an extract from the deadly Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant, and belladonna, extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

5. HEROIN TO CURE A MORPHINE HABIT

“Morphinism,” or morphine addiction, was perceived to be such a pervasive habit, and seen as such a scourge in polite society, that quack cures and treatments were easy to convince people to try, and rarely got reported or noticed when they didn’t work.

While unlabeled patent medicines in the U.S. were forced to reveal their ingredients after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, many dangerous concoctions were still sold and advertised falsely. The tale of Bayer’s Heroin being used to “cure” morphine addiction (with a much more addictive and refined opiate) is pretty well-known, but it never caught on as much as Habitina (also known as Morphina-Cura) did. Habitina became known for its paid testimonials and dodgy advertising claims (“Non-Addictive! Cures the morphine habit!”), and was one of the most significant examples of the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Habitina not only didn't give the patient a cure, it combined the worst sides of the pharmaceutical industry into one bottle—its main ingredients were morphine sulfate (does it count as a cure if you call the same drug by a different name?), heroin, and caffeine.

6. RADIUM TO PREVENT INSANITY AND OLD AGE

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” has to be one of the best Wall Street Journal headlines of all time. The “radium water” in question was called Radithor, and the jaw in question belonged to one Eben Byers: industrialist, socialite, and amateur golf champion.

Radium and radiation were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. People who went to natural hot springs seemed “invigorated and renewed,” and scientists noted that many of these natural springs were high in naturally-occurring radon. The radon seemed to be to water what oxygen was to air; without it, water was “dead.” Looking to profit off of this discovery, companies first bottled water directly from the springs, and later produced “invigorating” crocks (containing internal radon discs or coatings) to irradiate water. Just fill the crock before you go to sleep, and have healthy, stimulating water all day long!

Unfortunately for those who consumed the radon, the radiation in the water did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Eben Byers bought into the claims, and drank three bottles of Radithor a day, beginning in 1930. In 1932, his teeth began to fall out, holes began to appear in his jaw, and he became generally unwell. He was dying of aggressive cancer brought on by the radon (not radiation poisoning, as is commonly believed, but still directly attributable to the Radithor). He died at age 51 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His was one of the cases used to substantially increase the FDA’s ability to regulate medical claims, when the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed.

7. GOAT GLANDS TO CURE IMPOTENCE

Some people will do anything to get their “potency” back, and there are plenty of people out there who are willing to take advantage of that. John R. Brinkley was one of the myriad snake-oil salesmen at the turn of the century, but a medical degree bought from a diploma mill led the now-“Dr.” Brinkley to pursue grander matters.

Early on in Brinkley’s career, Bill Stittsworth, a farmer with “no lead in his pencil, no powder in his pistol” consulted him. The story goes that Brinkley jokingly remarked that it was too bad the farmer didn’t have the glands of the frisky billy goats outside, but Stittsworth, taking Brinkley seriously, said “Doctor, I want you to transplant [the goat glands] into me.” The doctor did as much, and nine months later, Bill Stittsworth’s wife reportedly bore a son, appropriately named “Billy.”

Seeing the potential to profit from this venture, John Brinkley set up a major advertising campaign centered on “Billy,” and “goat-gland transplantation” took off. Over 16,000 men had their scrotums cut open and tissue plugs from the goat testicles inserted. In the best-case scenario, the men’s bodies simply broke down the goat tissues and healed up, but many patients weren’t so lucky.

The fact that Brinkley was a mediocre medical man at best led to dozens of deaths that were directly attributable to his operation, but hundreds more are believed to have been killed by infection, gangrene, or surgical mishaps. Those deaths also helped lead to the revocation of Brinkley’s license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1930. Unfortunately for the easily swayed, he remained in the goat-gland business for another decade in Texas.

8. THALIDOMIDE TO CURE MORNING SICKNESS AND SLEEPLESSNESS

The 1950s were an era of innovation, new discoveries, and excitement about the potential that science had to improve our lives. Drug companies were thriving on this outlook, and developing cures for even the smallest of ailments. Sleeplessness was a major problem, according to contemporary doctors, but the only reliable sedatives were barbiturates, which had a host of known addiction problems and side effects.

In 1957, the German drug company Grunenthal developed a non-barbiturate, non-habit-forming sleep aid called Thalidomide. It was sold over the counter, and touted as “safe for everyone.” Grunenthal’s adverts boasted that they could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat. By 1960, its sales in Europe and the Commonwealth countries nearly matched that of aspirin. Down in Australia, Dr. William McBride noticed that women who took the drug were often alleviated of their morning sickness, and sales boomed even higher.

It was too good to be true. By 1961, babies were beginning to be born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide in early pregnancy. Many of them had shortened or absent “flipper” limbs. Dr. McBride realized his mistake, and did everything he could to retract his endorsements of the drug, but it was too late for over 12,000 infants. By 1961, the drug was pulled off the market, but Grunenthal offered no recompense or statement regarding its inadequate testing and irresponsible promotion.

Interestingly, the story of Thalidomide had a rather different turn in the United States. Though it technically passed the requirements of the FDA testing authority at the time, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey would not approve its distribution. Ms. Kelsey felt the company provided insufficient data on the efficacy and safety of the drug on its applications, and despite pressure from pharmaceutical companies and other FDA supervisors, she refused to budge on the issue. President John F. Kennedy eventually heralded her as a heroine, after the scandal of the “Thalidomide babies” broke overseas.

This incident further strengthened the testing requirements of the FDA, and greatly increased the oversight and regulation of equivalent organizations in other countries. Interestingly, Thalidomide is once again being used as a drug, albeit with extreme restrictions on who can take it. It’s a chemotherapeutic agent that has significant benefits for multiple myeloma patients, and it has also been used in the treatment of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Patients on the drug must have pregnancy tests and use reliable contraception if they are sexually active, and must not become pregnant within 4 weeks of coming off the drug.

This story first ran in 2013.

What's the Difference Between a Break and a Fracture?

iStock.com/belterz
iStock.com/belterz

A lot of people tend to think that breaking a bone is worse than fracturing it—or perhaps they believe it's the other way around. Others may think of a fracture as a specific kind of break called a hairline crack. However, as Arkansas-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. C. Noel Henley points out in the YouTube video below, these are all common misconceptions. A fracture and a break are actually one and the same.

“There’s no difference between these two things,” he says. “A fracture means the cracking or breaking of a hard object. One is not worse than the other when it comes to breaking bones.”

Some of the confusion might stem from the fact that the word fracture is often used to describe specific kinds of breaks, as in compound fractures, oblique fractures, and comminuted fractures. In all cases, though, both break and fracture refer to any instance where “the normal structure of the bone has been disrupted and damaged,”  Henley notes.

This isn’t the only common misconception when it comes to cracked bones. The idea that a “clean break” is a good thing when compared to the alternative is a myth. Using the scaphoid bone in the wrist as an example, Dr. Henley says a clean break in the “wrong” bone can still be very, very bad. In some cases, surgery might be necessary.

According to the BBC, other bone myths include the belief that you’ll be unable to move a certain body part if your bone is broken, or that you’ll instantly know if you have a fracture because it will hurt. This isn’t always the case, and some people remain mobile—and oblivious to their injury—for some time after it occurs. Even if you think you have a minor sprain or something seemingly small like a broken toe, it’s still a good idea to see a doctor. It could be more serious than you realize.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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