Re-Emerging Diseases

article image
Look out! Re-emerging diseases travel among us, and include such old scourges as cholera, diphtheria, measles, mumps, and tuberculosis.

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:

1. Ask your doctor whether your immunizations are up-to-date. Check especially for measles, mumps, tetanus, diphtheria, rubella, polio, and hepatitis B. (If you’re exposed to a person with such an infection and don’t know whether you’re adequately immunized, consult a physician.)

2. Make sure your children are immunized on schedule, especially before they’re placed in a day-care center or reach school age. (If your child isn’t fully immunized and contacts someone with measles, whooping cough, or chicken pox, consult your pediatrician immediately.)

3. Before you travel abroad, discuss your itinerary with your physician, and make sure you receive the proper immunizations, immune globulin, and preventive medications as indicated. (When traveling to tick-infested areas, protect yourself and your pets by using tick repellents and by making frequent inspections.)

4. Never handle an animal not well known to you. Always seek medical attention if bitten.

5. Always take a child’s sore throat seriously; consult your doctor about the possibility of strep.

6. Cook shellfish thoroughly. Before eating raw clams and oysters, especially in the Gulf Coast region, inquire about recent cases of cholera.

7. Care conscientiously for hot tubs, humidifiers, contact lenses, and all those other wonderful technological conveniences. When not kept clean, they’re boons to microorganisms, too.

8. Keep abreast of community health issues. Tell your elected representatives if you feel there are inadequate public health services in your area.

In Brief

Ultrasonic Humidifier Hazard: Those spiffy ultrasonic humidifiers are too good at what they do. According to the EPA, if you fill one up with tap water, the ultra-fine mist may contain hazardous levels of lead, aluminum, asbestos and dissolved organic gases. Even some “deionized” water actually contains enough impurities to cause air-quality problems. (Check nearby surfaces for a fine white powder — evidence your humidifier is emitting problem particles.)

The solution? Get out the old steam vaporizer. Even used with tap water, it leaves minerals behind and — unlike impeller-type (cool-mist) humidifiers — its heat kills mold or bacteria in the tank.

Nicotine and Gum Disease: Nicotine — in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco — actually alters the gum cells. In lab studies, researchers found that nicotine prompts gum cells to grow abnormally, thus encouraging gum disease. Nicotine-exposed cells also fail to attach firmly to tooth roots buried under the gum. That’s especially bad news for smokers going through periodontal surgery. If gum tissue is slow to attach to the tooth after surgery, therapy could fail.