Deeper into Jeopardy! XLI: Vaccines – $800

Jeopardy! category: VACCINES (30-3-2015)

$800 clue: Many believe a recent outbreak of this disease tied to Disneyland could have been prevented by vaccine

Correct response

The gist: The internet was rife with jokes about “the happiest place on Earth” the day this story broke. In December 2014, about 40 people at Disneyland came down with cases of the measles, which eventually led to over 130 people across the U.S. and elsewhere (ten cases linked to the Disneyland outbreak were reported in Toronto, my hometown) contracting the disease, either through direct contact with infected individuals at the park or indirectly through contacting people later who had been there. The measles is a contagious infectious disease characterized by high fever, cold-like symptoms, spots on the inside of the mouth known as Koplik’s spots, and a characteristic red full-body rash. Severe complications such as blindness, diarrhea, and pneumonia can occur in up to a third of cases. Worldwide it infects around 20 million people a year, mostly in developing areas of Africa and Asia, and kills almost 100,000 – still a very large number but a less than 5% of the total deaths from the disease thirty-five years ago.

Much of that improvement is due to the development of the measles vaccine, the first version of which was developed by doctors John Enders and Thomas Peebles in 1963.The modern three-in-one measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine was developed by Dr. Maurice Hilleman in 1971, a version of which continues to be the standard vaccine administered to children at one year of age. The introduction of the original vaccine caused rates of measles incidence in the U.S. to immediately and drastically by several times, and they have not risen to more than a quarter of the rates in the 1960s prior to the vaccine, as illustrated in this graph:

Measles incidence in the U.S. from 1950 to 2000, with year of vaccine introduction indicated

Horrifically, recent years have seen declining vaccination rates among certain sub-populations, due in large part to fear-mongering, unethical experimentation and publishing, and outright lying by a vocal minority of “anti-vaxx” researchers and activists, who claim that vaccines in general, and the MMR vaccine in particular, causes autism. It doesn’t. As a result, immunity levels to diseases like the measles in some areas have dropped to levels too low to prevent large outbreaks from occurring; research has suggested that this is the main cause of the outbreak at Disneyland.

The measles virus under electron micrograph

The clue: I love to see the Jeopardy! writers getting a little righteous in their clues. Not overly righteous, mind you – this is evening television, after all. But anyone who keeps up with the news will have heard the hollering that occurred about vaccination in the wake of the Disneyland outbreak, especially in California where the Jeopardy! writers live, so why not take the opportunity they have to put out a clue like this? Of course, they included the caveat “many believe” at the beginning of the clue because there are, after all, some who don’t believe that. Those people are wrong, though.

In Jeopardy!: 34 clues deal with measles in the J!Archive, though 12 of those are actually about German measles, a.k.a. rubella. Mumps, on the other hand, are in just five clues with the measles. Vaccines in general are mentioned in eight. “Rubeola,” the medical term for measles, is in four, but note that crucial ‘o’. Many of the clues also mention symptoms, especially the characteristic spots, but in a bunch of different ways – watch out punny uses of “spot” as a verb in clues about measles, too.

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