Black death, consumption, schistosomiasis, yellow fever: Colorful names for some of the deadliest diseases in human history. These infectious diseases, caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites, were passed directly or indirectly from one human to another.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, tuberculosis, or consumption as it was commonly called then, was widespread among city dwellers. Victims developed fevers and chronic coughs and slowly wasted away.
In 1918, another infectious disease spread around the world in less than two years, killing about 30 million people. This disease was a vicious strain of influenza that frequently resulted in death within two or three days. Although the U.S. was in the midst of World War I that year, 80 percent of the deaths among U.S. servicemen were from the flu.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, polio crippled or killed thousands of Americans. Today, of course, antibiotics and vaccines have put an end to plagues of infectious disease. Or have they?
Every year, on the continents of Asia and Africa, there are outbreaks of cholera, an infectious disease that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, often death. In the Congo in 1976 and again in 1995, there was an outbreak of a horrifying disease that killed 78 percent of its victims. The Ebola fever causes severe headaches and fever and then massive bleeding, leading rapidly to death. These epidemics are far away in poor countries and persist partly because of poor sanitation and inadequate health care.
Serious infectious diseases just can't happen anymore in the United States. Or can they?
In 1980, U.S. health officials became aware of an infectious disease that destroyed the immune systems of its victims, AIDS. So far, the epidemic has killed over 390,000 Americans and nearly 14 million people worldwide.
Pneumonia, a lung infection due to a variety of microbes, is the leading cause of death among the elderly in the United States. It has been called the "Old Man's Best Friend," because it leads to a quick death for older people declining in health.
American children and teenagers today aren't at risk for major infectious disease. Or are they?
Flesh-eating disease is as gruesome as it sounds. It is caused by a different variety of the same bacterium that causes strep throat. This disease, often associated with surgical wounds or skin infections among children recovering from chicken pox, can affect people of all ages and social classes today.
In 1993, a 17-year-old California high school student became infected with tuberculosis, a disease that most people thought was a thing of the past. One hundred of her fellow students were treated for latent infections. Seventeen of them developed active cases of TB. Fortunately, they were cured with antibiotic treatment. Standard antibiotics, however, failed to cure this young woman's infection. Eventually, she had to have nearly half of her right lung removed.
Fifty years ago, we thought we had entered a new era in which infectious diseases, at least in this country, were a threat only to the elderly and people already very ill. Today, it seems, infectious diseases are cropping up all over. What is going on? Why haven't we won the battle with infectious disease?
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