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5 Nasty Old Diseases That Just Refuse to Go Away

Do you remember seeing old black and white movies of kids getting vaccinated? The sleeve rolled up, the skillful nurse, the kid’s grimace. Maybe you went through that when you were a kid.

Vaccinations through the years have helped curb a lot of diseases and prevent a lot of sickness. But something unexpected is happening. Some old-time diseases are making comebacks.

For some diseases, the resurgence is because fewer people are getting appropriate vaccinations. Other times, it’s because global travel is making it easier for germs to catch a ride to new locations.

Depending on where you live, your risks may be relatively low for these diseases, but when it comes to your health care, it pays to be informed.


The number of mumps cases has hit a 10-year high in the U.S. in spite of a 99 percent reduction in the disease once a mumps vaccine became available here in 1967.

In the first 11 months of 2016, more than 4,200 people in 46 states (including all states in the Upper Midwest) reportedly had a mumps infection. Seven states* reported more than 100 cases during 2016. Illinois, Indiana and Iowa are among the seven.

Mumps is a disease caused by a virus spread by people in close quarters, such as at school, in a dorm or in a locker room. It’s most common on college campuses.

The virus jumps from person to person by talking, coughing, sneezing or sharing eating utensils such as drinking glasses.

The symptoms of mumps include enlarged salivary glands – which cause puffy cheeks and a swollen jaw – along with fever, fatigue and head and muscle aches.

Although most victims recover in a few weeks, some suffer serious complications. Men and adolescent boys can develop mumps infection in the testicles. This can result in pain, swelling and sometimes sterility.

The mumps vaccine can prevent the disease.


Measles is another disease caused by a virus that readily spreads by coughing or sneezing. The Centers for Disease Control says measles is so contagious that 90 percent of non-immune people near someone who has the virus will get it. 

Once commonplace, measles was considered eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. However, in the first 11 months of 2016, 62 people from 17 states** reported having measles. In 2015, the number was 188. In 2014 the number of people who had measles was 667. The majority of people who got measles were not vaccinated for it.

Since measles is common in other parts of the world, patients counted in the reports include individuals who brought the disease into the U.S. A 2015 measles outbreak in California likely started when a traveler who was infected overseas visited a well-known California amusement park. Most of the victims were too young to be vaccinated.

Symptoms of measles include fever, cough, runny nose, pink eye (conjunctivitis), feeling achy, fatigue and small white spots inside the mouth.

Measles victims usually recover in a couple of weeks, but the virus can become more serious if it spreads to the brain. Once in the brain, the virus can lay dormant for years before emerging as a progressive, debilitating brain disorder called sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). The rare disorder can take up to 10 years to emerge.

The measles vaccine can prevent this disease.

Note for international travelers: The CDC currently recommends Americans who plan to visit Romania should make sure they’re vaccinated for measles. A measles outbreak has been reported there.


The occurrence of this contagious bacterial disease is lower in the U.S. than other nations. However, like other diseases, the bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB) can arrive in the U.S. with travelers from nations such as China, India, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam, which have higher than average TB rates.

In 2015 (the most recent data), nearly 10,000 case of TB were reported in the U.S. That figure is a 1.6 percent increase from the year before.

Tuberculosis is an airborne bacterial infection that typically attacks the lungs. It spreads when someone with the bacteria in their lungs or throat coughs, sneezes or talks.

Symptoms may include a bad cough that lasts three weeks or longer, weight loss, loss of appetite, coughing up blood or mucus, weakness or fatigue, fever and night sweats.

There is no vaccine for TB, but it is treatable with antibiotics. The treatment can be long and complicated. Unfortunately, some forms of the bacterium that causes TB are becoming resistant to the drugs designed to kill them.


This disease dating back to biblical times is still hanging around. Officially it’s called Hansen’s disease. It can lead to physical deformities, skin sores, nerve damage and muscle weakness that gets worse over time.

Leprosy is caused by bacteria. Fortunately, it’s not very contagious. Researchers believe the bacteria spread when a person breathes in microscopic airborne droplets released when a victim of the disease coughs or sneezes. It may also be passed along when a person comes in contact with nasal fluids from a person with leprosy.

Most people who come in contact with the disease have a strong enough immune system to fight off the bacteria.

Still, about 100 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. Most cases are found in the South, California, Hawaii, Guam and the U.S. islands.

The symptoms include skin lesions that are lighter than your normal skin color; lesions that have reduced sensation to touch, heat or pain; lesions that do not heal after several weeks to months; muscle weakness; and numbness or lack of feeling in the hands, arms, feet and legs.

Antibiotics are used to treat leprosy. Early diagnosis and treatment reduce long-term complications of this disease.

Bubonic Plague

Yes, THAT bubonic plague! It’s just not the stuff of history books. Although rare, cases are still being reported around the world and in the U.S.

The disease first arrived in the U.S. in 1900. The bacteria that causes bubonic plague is found mostly in rats and the fleas that feed on them. Steamships that sailed here from affected areas such as Asia first brought people who were carriers of the bacteria to the U.S.

The disease is transmitted to humans when an infected flea bites a person.

Between 1900 and 2012, the U.S. had 1,006 confirmed or likely human cases of the plague. In recent years we’ve averaged seven cases per year in people of all ages. The incidents of the disease tend to be in the rural West Coast states and the Southwest.

Symptoms of bubonic plague, the most common of the three forms of plague, include fever, aches, chills and tender lymph glands. The disease causes the tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus to become inflamed.

Treatment for the disease is a strong antibiotic.

How to Prevent the Spread of Viruses and Bacteria

The good news is, we can balance the disquieting discussion about these old-time diseases with simple steps you can take to prevent spreading germs that can cause sickness. Thoroughly washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze can stop the spread of many germs.

Modern medicine has made enormous advances in disease prevention since the old days. Today’s vaccines are safe and effective ways to prevent viral infections like mumps and measles. Experts in the field believe some diseases are seeing a resurgence because of a reduction in the number of people receiving appropriate vaccinations, especially childhood vaccinations.

Ask your health care professional about the vaccinations that are right for the adults and children in your family.

When used with care, antibiotics remain a powerful tool to treat a range of infections such as tuberculosis, leprosy and bubonic plague. It’s important that antibiotics are used only when they can be effective. As an example, the common cold is a viral infection. Antibiotics are not the right choice to treat a cold.

Always ask your health care professional about the correct treatment for illnesses you and your family experience. And take the steps you can to prevent the diseases we’ve discussed in this blog.

* Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Oklahoma.

** Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

Meet the Author

Alby K. Antoo, MD is a Family Medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Kenosha, WI

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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