15 Diseases You Thought Were Gone—but Aren’t

Updated: Jun. 11, 2021

Believe it or not, these retro-sounding illnesses are still alive and well, and without the necessary precautions, you could wind up very sick—or worse.

Varicella concept. girls back skin bubble rash


People who keep their children from being vaccinated—anti-vaxxers—are largely responsible for the resurgence of measles, which was well on its way to eradication in the United States in 2000, thanks to the MMR vaccine. This highly contagious disease is spread through the air or by direct contact with someone who has it, and people can infect others unknowingly for up to four days before the telltale, full-body rash appears. In addition to the rash, symptoms include a high fever, a sore throat, red eyes, and white bumps in the mouth; complications can include deafness, brain damage, and death, especially in very young children. Here’s everything you need to know about measles outbreaks.

Brown Rat
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The plague

Yes, this is the same Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century, killing an estimated 25 million people. Between one and 17 cases of bubonic or septicemic plague pop up in the United States each year, according to the CDC, mostly in the West. Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the plague is transmitted via flea bites or contact with infected rodents or dead animals, and causes fever, weakness, and excruciatingly swollen lymph nodes. Septicemic plague also causes a blood infection, making skin and tissue turn black and die. Cases are rare today because sanitation and hygiene are lightyears better than they were in medieval times. If caught early, antibiotics are effective, but if left untreated, the plague has a mortality rate of 30 to 60 percent—or as high as 100 percent for pneumonic plague.

A woman coughing

Whooping cough

How dangerous can a cough be? Extremely. Also known as whooping cough or the 100-day cough, pertussis starts out like a traditional cold but then leads to a cough so severe that it causes vomiting, a red or blue face, and extreme fatigue. It is characterized by a “whoop” sound as the person afflicted with it gasps for air. According to the CDC, there are an estimated 200,000 cases in the United States each year and 20 infant fatalities. Babies under two months old are at the most risk because they are too young to be vaccinated. Doctors recommend that pregnant women get a Tdap booster shot, along with anyone else who will be in close contact with an infant—such as significant others, grandparents, and caregivers—since the vaccine’s effectiveness may wear off over time. Don’t fall for these 10 commonly believed vaccine myths.

Close up of mosquito sucking blood on human skin, Mosquito is carrier of Malaria/ Encephalitis/ Dengue/ Zika virus

Yellow fever

Transmitted by infected mosquitoes, yellow fever starts out with flu-like symptoms and can lead to a very high fever, internal bleeding, seizures, organ failure, and possibly death. While a vaccine for yellow fever exists, there often isn’t enough of it available when an outbreak occurs, which is what happened in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016. The most recent outbreak started in 2017 in the jungles of Brazil, near Rio and Sao Paolo, and the CDC issued a warning to U.S. travelers strongly recommending that they stay away or get vaccinated before visiting affected areas. Learn about 12 other scary diseases mosquitoes can spread.

Woman has Tooth Ache


Vaccines don’t last forever, which can help explain a recent surge in mumps cases among vaccinated college students. In 2010, only a few hundred cases popped up around the country, but in 2016 alone, there were more than 6,000. Mumps is spread through saliva, nasal mucous, and close contact with an infected person. Those who contract mumps will experience flu-like symptoms and a painful swelling of the salivary glands, but complications could include meningitis, encephalitis, miscarriage, and hearing loss.

Raised red bumps and blisters caused by shingles
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You might be shocked to learn not only that leprosy is around but that there are around 6,500 people living in the United States with it, with 100 to 200 new cases diagnosed each year. Now called Hansen’s disease, it is a bacterial infection that attacks the skin, peripheral nerves, upper respiratory tract, eyes, and the lining of the nose. If it’s not treated, it can cause disfigurement, nerve damage, hand and foot paralysis, and blindness. It sounds terrifying, but it responds well to multi-drug therapy, and after a few doses, those infected are no longer contagious. An overwhelming majority of people are also naturally immune to the disease, according to livescience.com. Hansen’s disease can be contracted from armadillos, who can be carriers for it, or through extended contact with an infected person. Learn about controversial medical theories that turned out to be true.

Child missing some front teeth.


When you think of scurvy, you might think of the high seas and pirates—not people living in developed countries today. Yet it’s a surprisingly big problem in certain populations in the United States—namely, those who are poor, homeless, or mentally ill, and those who don’t have access to proper nutrition. A 2009 CDC study found that up to 17 percent of low-income people in the United States suffer from it, while hospital admissions for this disease rose by 27 percent in the United Kingdom between 2009 and 2014. So, what is scurvy, exactly? It’s characterized by swollen gums, tooth loss, anemia, fatigue, and a rash, and it’s caused by a severe vitamin C deficiency. While highly treatable, it is often misdiagnosed because it’s not on doctors’ radars. Don’t miss these other 11 diseases doctors are likely to miss.

Clean Water
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While you’re unlikely to find cholera in the United States, it is still a worldwide pandemic, afflicting people who live in areas with poor sanitation conditions and water treatment. Caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with fecal bacteria, cholera leads to violent diarrhea and dehydration so severe that death can occur within hours. It is treatable with oral rehydration salts and IV fluids, and an oral vaccine is also available. Over the past decade, there have been outbreaks in Zimbabwe, Haiti, and Cuba, though the biggest recent cholera crisis was in Yemen in 2017, during which one million people were infected.

Closeup shot of a woman looking at thermometer. Female hands holding a digital thermometer. Girl measures the temperature. Shallow depth of field with focus on thermometer.

Typhoid fever

A major health issue in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, typhoid isn’t something you hear much about here anymore, though it’s still an enormous global problem; 21.5 million people are infected every year. About 5,700 U.S. cases are reported annually, but three-quarters of the victims caught the disease overseas. Spread through contaminated food and water, typhoid causes high fever, weakness, gastrointestinal problems, and often a rash; if untreated, it is fatal for one in four people. A typhoid vaccine is recommended before traveling to a high-risk area, and antibiotics are prescribed to those infected. While antibiotics have been incredibly effective, typhoid has recently become resistant to some of them, worrying the medical community. Some studies put resistance rates around 35 percent, according to medicalnewstoday.com.

asian man with chest pain
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Tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious, airborne disease that was a leading cause of death in the first half of the 20th century. Active TB is characterized by a weeks-long cough that often produces blood, chest pain, fever, and fatigue; generally, treatment requires up to nine months of antibiotics. Approximately 10,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with it every year. However, as NPR reports, multi-drug-resistant TB is on the rise, and it is becoming a particularly big problem in Russia, India, the Philippines, and South Africa. For other rare diseases, check out these 20 strange things you didn’t know you could be allergic to.

Close up Children with aphtha on lip
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Beware: This scary STD is making a comeback on the dating scene. Infection rates jumped by 17.7 percent between 2014 and 2015, putting them at a 20-year high. According to USA Today, health experts believe the increase is due to relaxed attitudes about HIV and lax condom usage, less funding for STD awareness, and a rise in social media and dating apps. While syphilis can be cured with penicillin, it is often mistaken for other medical issues, and symptoms might not show up for 90 days. Speaking of symptoms—they include painless sores on the genitals, anus, or mouth in the primary stage, as well as a non-itchy rash in the secondary stage, often along with fever, fatigue, and muscle aches. If left untreated, syphilis can enter the latent phase for up to 20 years but eventually can cause dementia, paralysis, organ damage, and death.

Doctor inject vaccine to patient.


Here’s the good news: Polio—an infectious disease that can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, and death—has been almost completely eradicated worldwide. But that took a massive, coordinated, 30-plus-year vaccination effort by a number of health organizations, including the WHO, the CDC, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While the last case of polio in the United States was in diagnosed in 1979, it is still endemic to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria; cases only number in the dozens, though. There is no cure, and once the infection starts, it has to run its course, which is why prevention is so important. According to the WHO, if all polio vaccinations were halted today, the infection rate could skyrocket to 200,000 cases per year within ten years.

Elderly woman suffering from pain From Rheumatoid Arthritis
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Once called the “disease of kings,” gout isn’t a contagion like many of the others on this list. It’s a painful form of arthritis, caused by a crystallization of uric acid in the joints, and it’s exacerbated by eating foods rich in compounds called purines, such as red meat and certain fish, as well as by drinking beer and hard liquor. Today, more than 8 million people in the United States suffer from it, compared to a fraction of that number in the early 1990s. Experts believe the rise is due to a national rise in obesity and high blood pressure, though hereditary factors also play a role in whether someone will develop it. Don’t miss these natural remedies for gout pain and swelling.

Pregnant woman in white underwear. Young woman expecting a baby.
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While fewer than ten people in the United States contract rubella (aka German measles) each year, it is still a risk when traveling abroad. Symptoms—which include a rash, a headache, and mild fever—are generally not serious unless you’re pregnant. If you are pregnant and contract rubella, it can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as cause severe problems for a fetus, including deafness, eye damage, and heart defects. Transmission occurs primarily through coughing, but up to 50 percent of those infected are asymptomatic. After a serious worldwide outbreak in the early 1960s, which saw 12.5 million Americans infected, rubella vaccinations became standard, and today, rubella protection is wrapped up in the childhood MMR vaccine.

little girl with crutches isolated on white background


It sounds like it should be relegated to the pages of a Victorian novel, but this disease, which causes bowed legs and weakened bones in children, is rearing its ugly head in the 21st century. Caused by a severe vitamin D deficiency, rickets can be prevented with exposure to sunlight and the consumption of certain foods, such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and vitamin D–fortified milk and cereal. Known risk factors include living in northern regions where there isn’t much sunlight; having dark skin, which doesn’t produce as much vitamin D; taking certain medications; and exclusively breastfeeding and not supplementing a baby’s diet with vitamin D drops. Find out which 42 symptoms could signal a serious disease.