Not Gone and Not Forgotten, These Diseases Still Live
The plague, leprosy, polio: Can we breathe a sigh of relief that these ghastly diseases have been erased from the globe?
Don’t exhale yet.
Many serious diseases people think have been eliminated are still around. Some are endemic in developing countries where vaccines and treatments can be scarce. Other illnesses, although rare, are also popping up right here at home.
Take the plague, for example. Thought it went out with the Middle Ages? Last week a man in Oregon was found to have the disease after being bitten by an animal (he’s being treated and is in critical condition).
Check out these other diseases that can still be found in spots around the globe.
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This virus, also called German measles, was pretty much knocked out in the late 1960s, thanks to a vaccine. But a February study in the journal Eurosurveillance reported a recent rubella outbreak among teens in Romania. Some good news: The World Health Organization says 31 countries reported no rubella cases in January, although in 2009 there were 121,344 rubella cases around the world.
Rubella is spread via human contact, and symptoms include a fever and rash. But having the virus in pregnancy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, can cause birth defects such as heart defects, intellectual deficits and damage to the liver and spleen.
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Polio cases have dropped by more than 99 percent since 1988 thanks to vaccines, the World Health Organization reports, but endemics exist in three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The poliovirus is highly contagious and can cause paralysis, breathing problems and death. WHO reports that from 2009 to 2010, spread of the virus resulted in 23 formerly polio-free countries becoming re-contaminated.
The disease, which may date back hundreds of years, is responsible for epidemics in the 19th and 20th centuries. The discovery of an injectable vaccine in 1955 (and an oral one in 1961) has nearly wiped out polio in developed countries. According to WHO, there were 1,352 reported cases worldwide in 2010.
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Yaws is a bacteria-borne chronic infection that affects the skin and bones. It was endemic in several countries until 1970, when concerted efforts to control it cut the prevalence of the disease by 95 percent. However, the World Health Organization reports that healthcare resources for the disease eventually dwindled, leading to its comeback. Due to inadequate reports it’s not known exactly how many global cases there are.
Today yaws is most commonly found in tropical regions of Asia, Central and South America, and Africa and is spread via contact with skin sores and lesions. Antibiotics are used to treat the disease, but left untreated it can cause permanent disfigurement.
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Recent news reports that a man in Oregon contracted the plague from an animal bite shocked people who thought the disease went out with the Middle Ages. The bacteria-borne illness appears in three forms (bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic) and is transmitted through rodents and their fleas and occasionally through infected animals. Cases are commonly treated with strong antibiotics, but the disease can be fatal. Symptoms vary according to type, and can include fever, abdominal pain and nausea.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are about 1,000 to 2,500 global cases yearly. The agency says the disease is endemic in rural areas of central and southern Africa, central Asia, the northeastern region of South America and the Indian subcontinent. In the U.S. it can still be found in pockets of the West and Southwest.
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Sleeping sickness, also known as Human African trypanosomiasis, is a parasitic disease usually transmitted by certain species of the tsetse fly. The World Health Organization reports that the disease is found in 36 sub-Saharan African countries, but case numbers have been dropping, thanks to efforts to control it.
Symptoms can include fatigue, headache, swollen lymph nodes and weakness, and if left untreated the disease can be fatal. Sleeping sickness is typically treated with a number of medications used singly or together. Doctors Without Borders notes that in the 1960s the disease was almost eliminated, but due to war, migration and substandard healthcare, it has made a return.
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This chronic disease, caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, still exists in some parts of Asia and Africa and was recently reported in the Philippines. Leprosy, also called Hansen’s disease, spreads via human-to-human contact when people are exposed to droplets from the nose and mouth, the World Health Organization reports. It can cause skin lesions and disfigurement and affect the nervous system and the eyes. Today it’s treated with a multi-drug therapy.
About 192,000 cases were reported worldwide in 130 countries and territories at the start of 2011, WHO says. Cases in the U.S. are rare, but in 2011 a study in the New England Journal of Medicine may have found a link between a leprosy outbreak in the South to the eating or handling of armadillos.
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal, and has gotten in a boxing ring. Email Jeannine