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Infectious Disease

Grade Level: 6-8

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White settlers were responsible for introducing several diseases, including cholera, to the Native American population. This lesson focuses on the spread of infectious diseases and compares cholera to Ebola and other infectious diseases.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Background Information
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Online Resources
Relevant National Standards


Students will be able to:

  • define infectious disease, and re-emergence,
  • describe symptoms, mode of transmission, and causes of the disease cholera,
  • explain the destruction cholera had on the people living in and traveling through the West in the 1800's,
  • compare the cholera outbreaks of the 1800's to the 1990's, and
  • examine the symptoms of, modes of transmission, and causes of several (selected) infectious diseases.

Estimated Time

Three class periods: one for viewing the recommended video clips, present and discuss background information, and organize data about cholera; one class period to collect data on a selected communicable disease; one class period to write either a letter "home" from the wagon train, or a series of personal journal entries while on the wagon train describing their disease.

Necessary Materials

Background Information

Throughout time, disease has played a role in the lives and deaths of people. During the 1800s, there were a variety of diseases that found their way to this soil. Once here, diseases spread across the lands sparing no one. White settlers were responsible for introducing several diseases to the Native American population. A disease of particular concern, cholera, wiped out 50% of the Northern Cheyenne and killed many others along the wagon trails. Cholera is an infectious disease transmitted through contaminated food and water. For more information on cholera, go to CDC Web Search at

Cholera, which had been almost completely wiped out, has re-emerged as an infectious disease in those countries where deficient food regulations exist and/or water and sanitation systems are not maintained. For the entire document surrounding re-emerging infectious diseases, go to Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases at

Teaching Procedure

    Day 1
  1. Write the following journal prompt on the board or overhead; "Using a paragraph format, how would you describe the term infectious disease?"

  2. Pair students: have them discuss their responses and come up with a definition of infectious disease to share with the class.

  3. Write each definition of infectious disease on the board or overhead. (Edit as needed in order to get an appropriate definition)

  4. Show The West, Episode 3, "My Share of the Rocks" [13:25-24:05]. This segment follows William Swain and his travels from NY to CA. On the journey, he documents the cholera outbreak he encountered along the wagon trail. Before showing the video, cue students into listening to William Swain tell about his ordeal with the disease (He gives details on the symptoms he experienced and how he treated his ailments.) Instruct students to pay particular attention to the dialog because they will be asked to create a dialog just as William Swain did. Other segments that provide information/statistics of the cholera outbreak include: "The Right of Conquest" [48:20-49:15] and "Emporium of the Pacific" [1:11:14-1:11:20]. William Swain's writings are available on the PBS West web site as well in Episode 3 Archives.

  5. Hold a class discussion on cholera; ask students the following information about cholera which they should have picked up from the video. Write their responses on the board:
    • Is cholera an infectious disease? How do you know?
    • What are some symptoms of cholera?
    • Is cholera a potentially fatal disease? Always?
    • What conditions from the wagon trails or life during that time might lead to getting this disease?
    • How do they treat this disease?

  6. Hand out the Cholera resource sheet obtained from the web site, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  7. Repeat the questions, this time using the resource information sheet: add any new information on the board next to their previous answers. They should have a bit more data using the information from the resource sheet. Tell students that cholera was almost wiped out in the late 1800's and most of the 1900's.

  8. Share with the class "What are re-emerging infectious diseases?" and the specific selection on cholera from the World Health Organization

  9. Have students brainstorm what they think might cause a re-emergence of a particular disease…then have the entire class read the section "What causes emergence or re-emergence of infectious diseases?" Add any pieces of information that they may have previously overlooked.

  10. Conclude today's session with a preview of tomorrow's "research" activity.

    Day 2
  1. As students enter class, give each student a slip of paper with the name of an infectious disease. This will be the disease they are responsible for researching. They should fill out the Data Collection Sheet (PDF requires Acrobat Reader) for their disease. These are a few suggestions for gathering data:

  2. As students finish their research, they may begin a rough draft of their final project.
    Day 3
  1. Students are to take the information from their research and write an article for a medical journal. Students should write the article from the prospective of a doctor who has been following the progression of their assigned disease in a fictitious patient. The article should be similar to the dialog recorded by William Swain from the wagon trails (optional: replay that segment of the video [13:25-24:05]
    The article should be written in the following format:
    • An introduction of the disease researched, background information (populations effected, historical outbreaks, etc…), general data about disease (typical symptoms, progression, etc…nonspecific to the patient).
    • A series of recorded visits with the patient. There should be at least three recorded "visits" with the patient, which should include the following: background data on the fictitious patient (age, gender, behaviors which may have put this individual at risk), dates of doctor visits, a daily observation (patient mood, general health, observations of symptoms etc…). This portion of the article should be written with a personal touch- NOT just restating the information from the data sheet). The entries should progress with the disease, through recovery/maintenance.

  2. Working in groups of four, students discuss a recent outbreak of their infectious disease, where the outbreak occurred, what led to the outbreak, and how it was contained. Finally, they should predict where they believe the next outbreak may occur, why they believe this, and what they recommend be done in order to prevent the outbreak from happening.

Assessment Recommendations

  1. Journal entry should be evaluated on writing and content. Students should have a topic sentence, supporting data (facts), and a concluding sentence. Their writing should exhibit knowledge of the topic (infectious disease).

  2. Data collection paper and final product should be evaluated on content. (are all the facts from the data collection paper included?), creativity (is it unique/personalized) and style (does it include all parts of the required format). See Infectious Disease Rubric (PDF requires Acrobat Reader) for grading.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

Younger students:

  1. What are some infectious diseases they/people they know have had? What were some of the symptoms that they had with that illness? How did they treat it? What can be done to limit the outbreak of a particular infectious disease?

  2. Students should create a disease prevention poster. This poster should include a "tip" on how to avoid getting or spreading an infectious disease. (for example, a person washing their hands with soap & warm water or someone covering their mouth as they sneeze) Option: post their work in the school as reminders to other students and staff or create a class book.

Older Students

  1. Using the web, investigate epidemics from the past and present.
    Epidemics in US 1657-1918

  2. Compare the past epidemics to current ones. Do any similarities exist? Are there any obvious differences. Create a class timeline of epidemics throughout history. Do any patterns emerge? How can collecting and organizing data like this help people?
    Class 5: Some Historically Significant Epidemics
    World Health Organization

  3. Using the web, investigate the infectious disease Ebola. Compare the characteristics of this disease to that of Cholera. How are these two diseases similar? How are they different?
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    World Health Organization

  4. Tell students: You have been hired to get information to the public about Ebola; you must come up with a public education campaign that educates people about the disease. You have the difficult task of providing the facts without creating fear and panic. You may write a TV commercial, radio announcement, or billboard in order to complete this task.


Miner, Kathleen and Stang, Lucas, "Disease," ETR Associates, 1994. p 7

Online Sites

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
World Health Organization

Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning

Curriculum Standards for Health

Content Standard 7: Knows how to maintain and promote personal health (6-8)

  • Students will be able to demonstrate positive health practices and appropriate health care in an effort to reduce health risks
  • Students will be able to conclude that health is influenced by body systems working together

Content Standard 8: Knows essential concepts about the prevention and control of disease.
  • Students will be able to recognize that pathogens and other risk factors are related to the cause or prevention of disease and other health problems.
  • Students will be able to define communicable disease and understand how it progresses.

Curriculum Standards for Science (National Science Content Standards)

Content Standard C: Structure and function of living systems (5-8)

  • Students will be able to identify several organisms responsible for infectious disease
  • Students will be able to describe symptoms, progression, and treatment for various infectious diseases

About the Author
Lynn Wiegand is a middle school health education teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. She has been teaching for 11 years, and often presents information on performance assessments in health education for her school system. Ms. Wiegand has a masters degree in science education and has been involved in writing the curriculum guides in MCPS for middle school health education. She has 3 children, 2 step-children and a house full of pets!

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