Diseases in the Oregon Trail Computer Game


Oregon Trail is a popular educational computer game. In the fifth edition of the game, students travel the Oregon Trail as pioneers on their way to Oregon Territory, fording rivers, hunting for food and experiencing many of the difficulties real pioneers faced. Among these difficulties are several illnesses that were common along the trail: typhoid, cholera, measles and dysentery. These diseases killed many travelers, so it is important for students to understand the seriousness of the diseases their on-screen characters are experiencing.


  • Typhoid is still common in the developing world but has been virtually eradicated in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The disease spreads most often through contaminated water, which is how many Oregon Trail travelers contracted the disease. Symptoms include high fever, stomach pain, weakness and loss of appetite, although the CDC cautions that a stool or blood test is the only way to conclusively demonstrate the presence of typhoid. Typhoid "can usually be treated with antibiotics," according to the CDC, but people who have had the disease should avoid preparing or working with food until a stool culture shows they have no more typhoid bacteria in their bodies.


  • Cholera also spreads through contaminated water and food. It was a common killer along the Oregon Trail, especially near heavily used water sources, where the bacteria could spread quickly. Cholera symptoms appear quickly and may include "acute watery diarrhea," according to the World Health Organization. This may lead to death from dehydration, especially if no safe water is available. Cholera, like typhoid, is still common in the developing world but rarely appears in industrialized nations.


  • Measles was once a common childhood killer, but the development of a vaccine has led to its near-eradication in the United States. Measles symptoms include coughing, a runny nose, sore throat and a red rash, according to the Mayo Clinic. While measles still occurs regularly, especially in developing countries, it is no longer the killer it once was, thanks largely to widespread vaccination efforts.


  • Dysentery actually refers to symptoms that may have varied causes: bacteria, amoebae, protozoa, chemicals, viruses or parasites. These agents cause the colon to become inflamed, leading to frequent watery diarrhea, which may contain blood or mucus. Like cholera and typhoid, dysentery spreads mainly through contaminated water. Like cholera, dysentery can kill by dehydration.

Diseases in the Game

  • In the Oregon Trail game, students can choose to increase the pace of their party to beat the winter snow at the end of the trail. Doing so, however, makes their traveling companions more susceptible to disease (or to the catch-all "exhaustion").

    Two in-game factors influence whether a traveler succumbs to disease or recovers: the player's profession and rest. At the beginning of the game, players can choose to be a banker, a doctor or carpenter, among other options. Choosing the "doctor" profession gives players a better chance of healing their sick traveling companions.

    The only other way to influence whether travelers recover is to order a rest. But beware: Resting too long can doom the entire party if you don't reach Oregon before winter, so you must balance the needs of each individual against the needs of the group.

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