Pandemic: More Info
New and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases
"A never-ending competition between microbes and pharmaceutical companies" is how Public Health Epidemiologist Jeffery Salloway describes the medical field's constant scramble to produce antidotes to new and rapidly-morphing viruses. Who's winning the race? The microbes.
Scientists such as Salloway predict that, due to factors such as increased international travel, antibiotic over-consumption, and the unsanitary living conditions caused by increasing global poverty, humankind will face devastating outbreaks of epidemic diseases in the near future.
While the public imagination has been captured by exotic diseases such as the deadly Ebola virus, epidemiologists think that some sexually transmitted diseases and new, stronger permutations of old viruses are potentially a much greater danger to humanity. Only 4-500 people have died from the Ebola Virus, while other emerging infectious diseases threaten to kill tens of millions. Here is some information on the diseases-some new, others re-emerging as threats-that public-health professionals are watching most closely:
Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB): Tuberculosis, long considered a disease of the past, has resurfaced in the last decade in a longer-lasting, drug-resistant form that proves to be deadlier than its earlier incarnation. According to the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, over 80% of MDR-TB infected patients died of the illness during outbreaks in New York and Europe during the late 1980s and early 90s. This strain of Tuberculosis has become drug-resistant due to a combination of factors such as inadequate medical treatment, improper use of antibiotics, and the tendency of patients undergoing TB treatment to stop taking their medicine once their symptoms lessen. It is airborne and highly contagious.
Many international health organizations refer to this strain of Tuberculosis as a "time bomb," citing its ease of transmission, lethality, and rapid spread from Russia and China westward. Several "hotspots" for the disease have been identified, primarily in Asia and Eastern Europe but also in North Africa and South America's Southern Cone. Outbreaks have been reported in several US and Western European cities.
The over-crowded, disease-ridden prisons of the former Soviet Union appear to be the disease's breeding grounds. The Russian Ministry of Justice states that 75% of its nation's prisoners suffer from Hepatitis, AIDS, and MDR-TB. Russian prisons are extraordinarily over-crowded and unsanitary, and prisoners receive shoddy medical treatment, creating optimal conditions for MDR-TB transmission. Guards, workers, doctors and nurses are exposed to the disease through their close contact with sick prisoners. When infected prisoners finish their sentences, they re-enter society, thus exposing the general public to the disease.
Public health officials have repeatedly expressed the urgent need to take global action against this disease. In response to the growing rates of infection, the World Health Organization declared MDR-TB a global public health emergency in 1995.
Influenza: The flu kills about 36,000 Americans and one million people worldwide each year. It is generally spread from birds to humans and many strains originate in Asia. There are hundreds of strains of influenza that continually mutate and re-combine, making influenza one of the most unpredictable and hard to prevent illnesses in existence. Influenza pandemics occur approximately every 25 years or so the illness mutates drastically into a new form to which humans have no immunity.
Each year, researchers from the World Health Organization who dedicate their careers to watching influenza choose the three strains that they predict will be the most widespread during the coming flu season and develop a flu vaccine that immunizes against those three strains. The trouble is, sometimes the professionals guess wrong. The United States faces a massive shortage of flu vaccine this year, leaving the population vulnerable to a devastating epidemic.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
The AIDS epidemic is one of the deadliest in human history. Although it has already caused global devastation, experts say that the worst is yet to come. The crisis continues to deepen in Sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS has slashed life-expectancy to as little as 33 years and caused incredible social and economic destruction. The UN warns that Asia, where one in four of new infections occurs, will see an AIDS explosion unless governments dramatically expand their prevention efforts. In the US, HIV transmission is on the rise among African-Americans, young people, and intravenous drug users.
Public Health Experts are anxiously watching other sexually transmitted diseases, concerned that they too will reach epidemic proportions during the next decades:
Genital Herpes: The American Social Health Association estimates that one in five Americans have genital herpes. Genital Herpes is spread by skin-to-skin contact and women are more susceptible to the disease then men. Because the disease can be difficult to detect, up to 90% of infected people are unaware that they have herpes. By mid-century, it is estimated that over half of the US population will have genital herpes.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV): At least 50% of sexually-active adults will acquire the HPV virus during their lifetime, estimate the Centers for Disease Control. HPV is sexually transmitted and causes genital warts, though it often goes undetected. Approximately 10 of the hundred existing strains of HPV are linked to cervical cancer in women. It is estimated that in 2004, 3,900 women will die of cervical cancer in the US.
Lymphogranuloma Venereum (LGV): LGV, a virulent strain of Chlamydia, causes genital lesions that spread to the internal organs and can lead to scarring and other complications. The disease is common in Asia and Latin America and has traditionally been treated successfully with antibiotics. However, a drug-resistant form of the virus is on the rise, particularly amongst the gay community in France, Belgium, and Holland. Because international travel is so common, doctors say that it is only a matter of time before drug-resistant LGV becomes a problem in the US.
New Infectious Diseases:
By the 1970s, many felt that the threat of infectious disease was a thing of the past. Amazing medical achievements had been made-antibiotics were widely available and children were protected, with just a shot in the arm, from diseases such as smallpox, polio, and measles that had once been killers. The discovery of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus in 1976, however, shattered that sense of security. Since the 1970s over 40 new infectious diseases have surfaced. New diseases continue to develop; the 2003 SARS epidemic was a frightening reminder that, despite massive medical advances, the threat of disease continues to grow.
A key factor in the emergence of new diseases is the acceleration of environmental destruction that has occurred during the last four decades-human encroachment on animal habitats means that people and animals such as deer and field mice-which carry Lyme Disease and Hanta Virus, respectively-live increasingly close to one another. Global warming also contributes to the problem providing optimal breeding conditions for West-Nile disease-bearing mosquitoes.
Here is a list of several of the 40 diseases that have emerged since 1970: Hepatitis C, Lyme Disease, HIV/AIDS, Legionnaire's disease, Virus Sin Nombre, SARS, Ebola, West Nile Virus, Nipah, Hendra, Toxic Shock Syndrome, Mad Cow Disease
For more information about emerging infectious diseases visit:
The Centers for Disease Control
The National Center for Infectious Diseases
The Journal of Infectious Diseases