Science News for Students: By the Numbers: How Infectious Measles and Other Diseases Spread

An R0 is one measure of how easily a disease can spread

Measles is extremely contagious. And one number, or rather a range of them, sums up the risk of its spread.

 

Article includes Power Words

average     (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.

contagious     An adjective for some disease that can be spread by direct contact with an infected individual or the germs that they shed into the air, their clothes or their environment. Such diseases are referred to as contagious.

Ebola     A family of viruses that cause a deadly disease in people. All cases have originated in Africa. Its symptoms include headaches, fever, muscle pain and extensive bleeding. The infection spreads from person to person (or animal to some person) through contact with infected body fluids. The disease gets its name from where the infection was first discovered in 1976 — communities near the Ebola River in what was then known as Zaire (and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

emerging infectious disease     A disease that suddenly has begun infecting increasing numbers of people or other organisms and could increase dramatically, more so in the near future.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

epidemic     A widespread outbreak of an infectious disease that sickens many people (or other organisms) in a community at the same time. The term also may be applied to non-infectious diseases or conditions that have spread in a similar way.

epidemiologist     Like health detectives, these researchers figure out what causes a particular illness and how to limit its spread.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

herd immunity     A term that refers to the idea that if most people within a population are immune to a disease, then they can’t spread it. This tends to protect most people who are not immune.

immune     (adj.) Having to do with the immunity. (v.) Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can be used to mean an organism shows no impacts from exposure to a particular poison or process. More generally, the term may signal that something cannot be hurt by a particular drug, disease or chemical.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

immunity     The ability of an organism to resist a particular infection or poison by providing cells to remove, kill or disarm the dangerous substance or infectious germ. Or, when used colloquially, it means the ability to avoid some other type of adverse impact (such as firing from a job or being bullied).

infect     (adj. infectious) To spread a disease from one organism to another. This usually involves introducing some sort of disease-causing germ to an individual.

measles     A highly contagious disease, typically striking children. Symptoms include a characteristic rash across the body, headaches, runny nose, and coughing. Some people also develop pinkeye, a swelling of the brain (which can cause brain damage) and pneumonia. Both of the latter two complications can lead to death. Fortunately, since the middle 1960s there has been a vaccine to dramatically cut the risk of infection.

outbreak     The sudden emergence of disease in a population of people or animals. The term may also be applied to the sudden emergence of devastating natural phenomena, such as earthquakes or tornadoes.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

range     The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. (in math or for measurements) The extent to which variation in values is possible. Also, the distance within which something can be reached or perceived.

ratio     The relationship between two numbers or amounts. When written out, the numbers usually are separated by a colon, such as a 50:50. That would mean that for every 50 units of one thing (on the left) there would also be 50 units of another thing (represented by the number on the right).

strain     (in biology) Organisms that belong to the same species that share some small but definable characteristics. For example, biologists breed certain strains of mice that may have a particular susceptibility to disease. Certain bacteria or viruses may develop one or more mutations that turn them into a strain that is immune to the ordinarily lethal effect of one or more drugs.

threshold     A lower limit; or the lowest level at which something occurs.

transmission     Something that is conveyed or sent along. (in mechanics) In a liquid-fueled vehicle, the machinery used to transfer power from the engine to the drive wheels. (In medicine) To spread a disease or toxic agent.

vaccine     (v. vaccinate) A biological mixture that resembles a disease-causing agent. It is given to help the body create immunity to a particular disease. The injections used to administer most vaccines are known as vaccinations.

variable     (in mathematics) A letter used in a mathematical expression that may take on different values. (in experiments) A factor that can be changed, especially one allowed to change in a scientific experiment. For instance, when researchers measure how much insecticide it might take to kill a fly, they might change the dose or the age at which the insect is exposed. Both the dose and age would be variables in this experiment.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.


Health & Medicine
K-6, Middle School

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