Whilst we are enjoying the beaches, the only emerging health problem we currently worry about is the sting of a jellyfish. Recently another serious health threat has emerged again, but fortunately the Ebolavirus is ravaging countries far away from us. Surely this could not happen here. Wrong! At the same time I freely admit that a disease killing 60 to 90% of sufferers within days is going to be an unlikely scenario.
However, what about the flu, after all we vaccinate to try to prevent a serious outbreak of a newly transformed virus. If half of Spain would fall ill and 5% would die this would still be the impressive number of 1.1 million people. This is not science fiction, 100 years ago the “Spanish flu” really killed 5% of the world´s population. Only 5 years ago we had an outbreak of flu, however that particular virus was fortunately not deadly. 10 years ago we worried about SARS, a virus seemingly too slow to infect masses of people, but only in a modern health setting. 30 years ago we were confronted with HIV, which, don´t let us forget, was 100% deadly for many years.
Whilst it is inevitable that new infectious illnesses emerge all the time, mankind does its share to spread them more rapidly with its modern means of transport like the examples above teach us. But apart from that we have to prepare for known illnesses emerging in new populations because of the illness travelling itself. The African West Nile Virus is believed to have been spread nearly all over the world via an infected bird or mosquito entering the United States less than two decades ago. It mainly infects birds and kills them. It causes severe illness in humans, most patients however recover eventually.
Experts wait for Dengue Fever to emerge in the southern Europe, because with the warmer climate the Aedes mosquito which transmits the virus is able to extend its habitat. The virus depends on that mosquito and consequently can only infect in areas where its host is able to survive. The mosquitos have already been found as far north as Germany, but none of them so far had been infected themselves. Dengue is commonly called breakbone fever and is particularly dangerous for children.
Another source of emerging diseases may come from our way of life. The consumer society produces a lot of waste, an ideal environment for rats and other rodents. They carry viruses which can become dangerous to humans like the Hantavirus. The modern consumer society needs to produce a lot and needs to produce it cheaply. Mass husbandry requires enormous amounts of prophylactic antibiotics, the same antibiotics humans take. They are supposed to prevent illnesses in the animals, the same illnesses humans get and those animals have the same bacteria like humans have. The likelihood for infections unresponsive to treatment with antibiotics increases by the day. Already now a huge problem of resistant bacteria in hospitals exists, infecting in the USA alone 1.7 million people each year and killing 100.000 of them. Just imagine having a leg amputated because the infected insect bite can’t be treated!
A major concern on a worldwide level and a reemerging infection in the developed world is tuberculosis. Sufferers may be contagious for years. Multi-drug resistance is increasing alarmingly, fed mainly by patients´ ignorance and poverty. These TB bacilli are equally contagious as normal ones, but treatment options are few and quite toxic, thus the poverty elsewhere might kill us one day.
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