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5 diseases Americans should fear way more than Ebola

This little guy should terrify you. Credit: Gerald Yuvallos/Flick

News that two American aid workers who were infected with the Ebola virus are being provided treatment in Atlanta has sparked some people to panic. The decision to use Emory University Hospital, where Dr Kent Brantly arrived on Saturday and where Nancy Writebol will be treated starting today, has sparked what Dr Tom Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people to send “nasty emails” and some 100 calls questioning the decision.

“So it’s not going to spread widely in the U.S. Could we have another person here, could we have a case or two? Not impossible,” said Frieden. “We say in medicine never say never. But we know how to stop it here. But to really protect ourselves, the single most important thing we can do is stop it at the source in Africa. That’s going to protect them and protect us.”

He admits that Ebola is very scary. Heck, everyone will agree with him on that point. Dr Brantley had to enter the country wearing a protective suit surrounded by people in protective suits. He now sits in an infectious disease portion of the hospital where numerous precautionary measures are taken to prevent the spread of Ebola. Fears of Ebola are founded in the fact that it spreads relatively easily and is a brutal killer of most people who contract it. Though, thanks to Hollywood and a lack of understanding how Ebola works, there are some misconceptions about the virus.

For instance, Ebola is spread through body fluids. Meaning you pretty much have to touch someone who has it. That is not the only way to get it, but that is the gist. It is nothing like the movie Outbreak where Kevin Spacey’s character catches the virus because his suit rips. There is also a scene in the same film where the doctors realize that it is spreading throughout the hospital via the ventilation system. If that were the case, then Ebola would be even scarier and bringing someone with the virus into the country would be far more complicated.

That just isn’t the case.

Furthermore, in the impossibly small chance that Ebola does spread in the US, health systems here are far better than in West Africa. Highly trained infectious disease experts would be able to quickly respond to an outbreak and isolate it before it became an epidemic. US healthcare is pretty flawed, but we have the resources to deal with Ebola.

With all of that said, there are some things you should be worried about that are a real threat to you. Before raining down all the doom and gloom, there is good news. The problems caused by these infections and diseases can be avoided or severely mitigated if preventative action is undertaken. I’m not talking about eating kale and anti-oxidants. The Ebola outbreak shows just how important global health investments are for American citizens.

TB, unlike Ebola, is spread through the air. The coughing caused by the infection in the lungs produces some pretty nasty looking stuff and makes for something that spreads easily. It may seem like something of the past, but that is not at all the case. Thousands of Americans are infected with TB, many do not even know about it. The basic forms can be treated over half a year or so. What is worrying is the fact that drug-resistant forms of TB keep popping up in places like Russia and India. Given how easily TB spreads and the fact that people may not know they have it means that these new forms of TB can easily enter and spread throughout the US. If things get worse and it happens, we are pretty screwed. The first significant advances in treatment are just starting to become available, and they are far from being able to treat all the forms of TB out there. Meanwhile, TB is the bastard brother of Global Fund trio with Malaria and HIV/AIDS. Advocates keep asking for more money to pump into research and development, but make little progress.
This mosquito-transmitted virus is sitting on the doorstep of the US. It used to be a problem only in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. That changed last year when infections were detected in the Caribbean. The good news is it probably won’t kill you. The bad news is that there is no treatment for it and it can really knock you for a loop for about a week. The first case of locally acquired chikungunya was detected in Florida a few weeks ago. The CDC has been on the case for the past few years, so there is good reason to think that this can be controlled.
Speaking of foreign diseases invading Florida… Dengue fever has cropped up in the Sunshine State relatively recently. It too is spread by everybody’s least favorite pest, the mosquito. The past decade has seen cases spring up in Hawaii, Texas and Florida. That follows roughly a half-century without dengue in the US. It causes a fever and pain in the bones and joints so severe that it earned the nickname ‘break bone fever.’ It can be deadly if it goes untreated and the disease gets worse. Most worrying is how easily it is contracted and how sick it can make people. Like Chikungunya, you don’t want to catch dengue.
The discovery of penicillin in 1928 was one of the all time great global health achievements. Basic bacteria were no longer deadly. Penicillin saved lives from the battlefields of World War II to the average American home. It was pretty amazing for a few decades, then resistance crept into the picture. New antibiotics were developed and they lasted shorter and shorter periods of time before resistance took hold. Some of the blame is on misuse. People do not complete treatments, so bacteria are not fully killed off. Then there is the fact that antibiotics are used for American livestock. That and other factors adds up to a problem. How bad is it? New antibiotics are already seeing evidence of resistance in the process of development. If an arms race metaphor was ever to be used appropriately in the health field, this may be the time. It is the Cold War and researchers have gone from being the big bad US, to the pathetic USSR who just can’t keep up. What this all means is that the little infections we never had to worry about could start killing us.
Vaccine-preventable diseases (ie. measles, whopping cough, etc.)
The polio vaccine is another discover that sits alongside penicillin. Thanks to the vaccine it is eradicated in the majority of the world and will soon be entirely gone. That is due to the spread of effective vaccines against the infections disease. Vaccines against other diseases have helped save lives. A recent estimate showed that vaccines prevented 100 million serious cases of contagious diseases in the US since 1924. How awesome is that? What is not awesome is that people are choosing not to vaccinate their children. That is bad news for children and worse for babies. California recorded 9,120 cases of whooping cough in 2010. The likelihood more than doubled in areas of the state with high rates of personal belief vaccine exemptions. Measles is another where cases have been increasing in the US and the UK. Vaccines prevent these two diseases by both protecting the vaccinated child and creating herd immunity (if most people can’t get the infection, it will die off before reaching those who are vulnerable).

About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]