Re-Emerging Diseases

Public health officials are having to contend with a slew of re-emerging diseases — debilitating if not fatal conditions once thought to have been defeated.

| March/April 1989

  • re-emerging diseases - three distressed people wearing medical masks
    Look out! Re-emerging diseases travel among us, and include such old scourges as cholera, diphtheria, measles, mumps, and tuberculosis.
    PHOTO: CSÁK ISTVÁN/FOTOLIA

  • re-emerging diseases - three distressed people wearing medical masks

When it concerns the fitness of body, mind or spirit, the editors of American Health are there, staying on top of up-to-date medical research, separating fad from fact, and helping you preserve and improve life's most precious gift:  your good health. A major story in a recent issue involves re-emerging diseases — illnesses once thought defeated in this country that are rearing their ugly heads again.


Infectious diseases such as cholera, rheumatic fever, and plague — though quite rare — are still threats to be reckoned with. For example, cholera, Vibrio comma, is turning up in the shellfish population, mainly on the U.S. Gulf Coast. It's usually transmitted to humans when they eat shellfish that have been undercooked or improperly stored. Likewise, outbreaks of such maladies of yesteryear as measles, mumps, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and syphilis are on the rise. That's partly because parents, doctors, and public health authorities have failed to mount the effort needed to make sure everyone susceptible to preventable diseases, regardless of economic status, is vaccinated. In fact, immunization levels for preschoolers actually worsened or showed no improvement between 1980 and 1985 (the latest years for which data are available).

Even people who have been properly immunized are being stricken. In the majority of recent cases of measles, the administered vaccine apparently never took hold. However, a rise in cases of whooping cough may not be the result of a failure of a vaccine but, perhaps, failure of the immunity to last as people grow older. This might not matter as much if more infants were immunized and there wasn't so much whooping cough around to pose a risk. Diphtheria, too, is striking people who've been immunized but whose immunity levels have fallen. Indeed, tomorrow's adults may find themselves as vulnerable as yesterday's children to this illness.

Sometimes a bygone infectious disease strikes again because it suddenly becomes more virulent, as is probably the case with the Group A streptococcus strains that can lead to rheumatic fever. What's more, organisms that "learn" certain adaptations (such as the ability to adhere more tightly to a human cell or to resist an antibiotic) can sometimes pass the traits to cousins through mobile pieces of DNA, called transposons. For example, Staphylococcus aureus, which causes toxic shock syndrome, appears to have passed on its toxin-producing know-how to streptococci. The result: "toxic strep syndrome."

Scientists are also speculating that the global warming trend (a 50-year forecast predicts that temperatures may rise by up to 9°F) may encourage a dramatic increase in mosquito breeding, with far-ranging infectious consequences, such as hemorrhagic dengue fever, which strikes children. Symptoms usually range from fever and headache to shock, prostration, and internal bleeding. Already, Aedes albopictus, the mosquito that carries the dengue virus, has spread to many regions of the U.S., including cities in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Indiana, and Tennessee.



Many other exotic infections — leprosy (caused by a relative of the tuberculosis organism), glanders (caused by a bacterium Pseudomonas mallei ) and schistosomiasis (a parasitic illness) — have been imported (and sometimes spread) by travelers and refugees. There also has been a steady resurgence of bubonic plague in the U.S., which has been linked to the increasing numbers of people pursuing recreational activities in the Southwest, where plague-carrying fleas infest rock squirrels, other rodents, and even cats and dogs.

But we are not helpless against re-emerging diseases. Here are eight things you can do to combat them:






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