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Old-World Diseases That Can Still Affect Your Health

04/11/2013 09:17 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015

By Corrie Pikul

Here's what you should know about four retro diseases that are still around -- and a fifth that's back with a vengeance.

1. The Cough That's Tough To Kick: Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
In the early 1900s, about 200,000 children in the United States got whooping cough each year, and about 9,000 died as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). After a vaccine became widely available in the 1940s, reported cases dropped to about 900 annually. However, last year, more than 41,000 cases were reported to the CDC -- the most since 1955.
Why it’s still around: Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. switched from using a vaccine that contained the entire bacterium (which posed a higher risk of side effects) to a less potent "acellular" version. Experts now suspect the newer vaccine is wearing off faster.
What you can do: Talk to your doctor about a booster shot of Tdap (for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), especially if you haven't had one in 10 years, you're in contact with infants or you're pregnant. The "whoop" occurs when the infected person tries to suck in air to fill their lungs, but you can be sick without the sound, says Alison Patti, a spokeswoman for the CDC's bacterial diseases division. Watch for a cough that gets worse at night and won't go away (in China, pertussis is known as "the 100 days' cough"). If you think you have it, make an appointment to see your doctor, because antibiotics are most effective when taken early.

2. The Jet-Setting Rash: Measles (Rubeola)
This virus is so contagious that it can be spread by a sneeze, a cough or even the breath of a close-talker. Before a widespread vaccination program began in the 1950s, an estimated 3 to 4 million Americans were infected each year, and 400 to 500 died from the disease. Measles was so common that most people contracted it by age 20, developing a fever, cough and runny nose, then a head-to-toe rash (measles can also lead to pneumonia and encephalitis). The CDC states that 220 confirmed cases of measles were reported in the U.S. in 2011, compared with a median of 60 cases the year before.
Why it’s still around: Thanks to MMR vaccinations (protecting against measles, mumps and rubella), the United States had all but eradicated measles. Unfortunately, the virus still kills nearly 200,000 people around the world, and it's managed to hitch a ride with travelers and infect vulnerable and unvaccinated people here in the U.S.
What you can do: Make sure you and the children in your life are vaccinated, because those who aren't can not only get sick but can also pass this disease along to babies, elderly people and other kids who haven't had the entire course of vaccines. You may have heard that the MMR vaccine can cause developmental disorders, but these claims are unfounded: Large studies of thousands of children have found no connection between this vaccine and autism. Another recent study addressed concerns about the number of vaccines children receive early in life, and concluded that this was also unrelated to the risk of developing autism.

3. The Rich-People Affliction That's Now Affecting Commoners: Gout (Gouty Arthritis)
This painful form of arthritis was once seen as a disease of the aristocracy because the condition that causes it -- a build-up of uric acid in the blood -- is associated with consuming large amounts of port wine, meat and other indulgences. Over time, the "disease of kings" has spread to suburban royalty. Rates have doubled in the past 20 years; it now affects about 4 percent of American adults, says N. Lawrence Edwards, MD, CEO of the Gout & Uric Acid Education Society and professor of medicine, rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Florida.
Why it’s still around: While genetics play a big role, the risk of developing gout increases in those who are overweight or diabetic. Flare-ups can be triggered by consuming alcohol, red meat, shellfish, organ meats and high-fructose corn syrup -- basically, the modern American diet. Another reason we’re seeing more cases of gout: We’re living longer. Older people, who are more likely to have age-related medical conditions like high blood pressure, are also more likely to experience flare-ups.
What you can do: Try to maintain healthy weight and keep your blood pressure in check, says Edwards, as hypertension, kidney disease, blood disease and diabetes all tend to be associated with gout. Doctors can also prescribe drugs to lower your uric acid level.

4. The Swelling Virus That Keeps Popping Up: The Mumps (Epidemic Parotitis)
The mumps used to be a common illness that was the leading cause of deafness among children. Good immunization coverage means that this virus is now rare: An estimated 212,000 cases occurred in 1964, while only 454 cases were reported in 2008, says the CDC. However, outbreaks continue to occur: Six thousand cases of mumps were reported in 2006, and 3,000 in 2009. In February 2013, more than a dozen Loyola University Maryland students came down with the fevers and swollen salivary glands associated with the mumps, putting state officials on high alert.
Why it’s still around: Most Americans receive a one-two punch of the MMR vaccine as children, and studies have shown that this double dose is about 88 percent effective. However, the rate of unvaccinated children in the United States has been slowly creeping up, and other countries don't follow the same vaccination guidelines. Sporadic outbreaks can occur in places where people spend a lot of time in close contact -- like colleges.
What you can do: There's no cure for the mumps. It's usually a mild disease in children, but adults may experience complications like meningitis and encephalitis, as well as swelling and inflammation in the ovaries or testes and breasts. Check your immunization records. You can also ask your doctor to perform blood tests that can assess your current immunity.

5. A Bug That Needs To Be Taken More Seriously: The Flu (Influenza)
The flu is an expected winter hazard, but his season was long, intense and especially severe for seniors -- the worst for them that it's been in about a decade, says a CDC spokesperson.
Why it’s hitting so hard: This was the earliest start to the flu season since 2003–2004 (it hit the first week of December instead of the usual January or February), and according to a CDC representative, the dominant strain -- influenza A (H3N2) -- is typically associated with a higher rate of hospitalizations and deaths, especially in older people.
What you can do: The CDC recommends that everyone get vaccinated every year. The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in, so it's best to get it early in the fall, before the season takes off. While effectiveness varies, the vaccine can lower your risk of getting sick and having to go to the doctor by about 60 percent, and if you do get the bug, it can help you avoid a related illness that could land you in the hospital. (And although you've heard this advice a million times before: Wash your hands! It's one of the best ways to stay healthy.)

As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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