Those who attended grade school in the 80s and early 90s likely played the popular educational video game The Oregon Trail. In the game, students assumed the role of the head of a family making their way across the American Great Plains to Oregon.
The game was intended to teach students a little about the history of westward expansion and geography. Players had to decide to how to cross rivers they encountered on their journey and avoid the numerous dangers that awaited them on the trek.
For most, two things remain as prominent memories from playing the game. The first thing that usually springs to mind is the ability to hunt by firing at animals running across the screen, aiming at them with crosshairs controlled by the computer’s mouse. The second memory is likely that many, many members of the player’s virtual family and wagon party died. Snakebites and exhaustion were common ways for loved ones to meet their fate. If a player was a poor hunter, starvation wasn’t far off.
But, by far, the most costly in terms of human life was disease. For many children who played the game, Oregon Trail was the first time they were introduced to the existence of diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and typhoid fever.
Many, when they bothered to ask, were assured by teachers that such diseases were “old time” diseases, rendered harmless by the miracles of modern medicine.
It turns out that might have been some pretty poor teaching. While it is true that a student who was lucky enough to be sitting in front of a computer in a public school in the 80s or 90s was not likely to succumb to cholera, it is also true that many of the diseases that plagued the virtual families of The Oregon Trail are still out there.
Indeed, many recent studies and academic papers show that modern medicine has lulled us all into a false sense of security.
Diseases that we have believed for years could no longer “get us” are still out there, and not just the ones from The Oregon Trail.
Here is a list of five.
Measles gets mentioned first because it has been in the news recently. Health officials have said that at least 129 cases of the nearly-forgotten disease have been reported in United States in the first three months of this year alone. Many of those cases were reported by people who had travelled to the Philippines, where a recent outbreak has left about 20,000 people ill.
Measles rarely kills an infected person. But doctors and health officials worry that recent cases indicate that some people are resistant to vaccination. Such resistance, coupled with recent anti-vaccination efforts, led by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, could lead to a more serious outbreak, some argue.
Further complicating the problem is that modern medicine has made the disease so rare that few doctors have ever encountered it and therefore have trouble recognizing or diagnosing it when it does appear.
Doctors continue to recommend that children be vaccinated with the popular MMR vaccine, which inoculates children against measles, mumps and rubella. The theory promoted by McCarthy, that the vaccine causes autism, has been thoroughly debunked.
Diphtheria was a killer in the The Oregon Trail and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, if any given population eases up ever so slightly on vaccination efforts, it can come back quickly. The disease is caused by a toxin created by a bacteria. It creates a thick coating on the back of the nose and throat, making it difficult to breathe. The toxin can also attack the heart. It is highly contagious and can be spread by a person up to two weeks after infection.
Doctors and CDC officials say that, prior to vaccinations for the disease, there were up to 200,000 cases on diphtheria in the United Staes every year. As many as 15,000 people died from the disease annually. Once vaccines went into to use that number dropped quickly. In the last 10 years, only five cases have been reported.
But when efforts to vaccinate children in Russia began to slip in the early 90s and kids were not getting the full battery of shots prior their first birthday, instances of the disease rose sharply. The country reported 12,865 cases between 1990 and 1993.
India also saw a sharp increase in the disease as recently as 2007, when immunization efforts waned.
Just as with the MMR, doctors assure us that the diphtheria vaccine, commonly known as the DTaP, is entirely safe and it should be administered to all children.
Cholera is an acute intestinal disease caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It is rare in the United States, but the CDC estimates there are 3 to 5 million cases annually worldwide. It is responsible for approximately 100,000 deaths each year.
The disease is not passed from person to person but rather comes from drinking water or eating food contaminated with the cholera bacterium. It usually spreads in areas where disaster has struck and water and sewer treatment is inadequate.
The bacterium causes severe diarrhea and vomiting which leads to dehydration and, in serious cases, can kill a person in a matter of hours if left untreated.
There is a current outbreak in South Sudan that has killed at least nine people.
Officials in the U.S. were concerned about an outbreak following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Although no cases were reported during the time, cholera cases along the Gulf Coast do occur as a result of eating contaminated seafood; a reminder that the bacterium can strike at any time if proper precautions aren’t taken.
Typhoid fever, like Cholera, is often seen in areas where disaster has struck. It is also prevalent in developing areas with poor sanitation and water treatment. The disease is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi. It initially attacks the intestine but can attack other organs if left untreated, resulting in extremely high fevers and even death.
It is estimated that the United States sees 5,700 cases of typhoid fever annually. Most of those cases — about 75 percent — occur in people who have travelled abroad.
One of the more troubling aspects of the disease is that people can carry the bacteria without displaying any symptoms. Those people continue to shed the bacterium through their stool. If food is prepared by a carrier and proper sanitation practices are not followed they can pass the disease to others. Such was the case with the infamous Typhoid Mary in the early 20th Century.
Plague is one of the most deadly diseases in the history of humankind. It is estimated that it wiped out nearly a third of the European population in the 14th century.
But few realize that it still exists. In fact, the World Health Organization, as recently as 2008 classified plague as “re-emerging” disease. While other diseases on the list — like measles — are not so deadly, and the more serious ones — like typhoid fever — are not as prevalent in the United States, plague does exist in North America and continues to kill.
The disease lives in rats and is typically spread to humans by way of flea bites.
Astonishingly the CDC confirmed 999 cases of the disease between 1900 and 2010. Over 80 percent of those were of the dreaded and deadly bubonic strain.
While plague can be treated with aggressive antibiotics if caught early, it can kill an infected person in just two days.
The WHO receives reports of about 2,000 cases each year, but the organization says the true number of cases is likely much higher.
That is a stark reminder that although modern medicine has truly worked some wonders, it is a double edged sword. Mother Nature can still throw some real curve balls at us, and nobody should be complacent when it comes to public health.