Whenever people say “Oh I was born in the wrong decade/century!” it kind of makes you wonder if they realized how sick people got from, uh, everything back then. For many of us, pretty much anything before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (1928) is a no. Still, part of the price we pay to live in glorious times such as these is that we don’t realize how good we have it. To help remind us of a few reasons why, despite it’s problems, living in the 2010’s is pretty amazing, here are 25 Illnesses And Diseases That Aren’t As Deadly As They Used To Be.
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Chicken Pox and Shingles
In 1995, a vaccine was developed for Chicken Pox and Shingles. While for most people, getting Chicken Pox was a weird right of passage where you spent the week slathered in calamine lotion watching Nickelodeon and were generally pretty itchy, feverish, and grumpy, now that there’s a vaccine for the virus that causes Chicken Pox and Shingles – the Varicella-Zoster virus – those days are over.
Diphtheria generally starts with a fever and sore throat (like nearly every illness ever), and can worsen into heart and nerve issues, an extremely swollen neck and weird white or grey things in your throat. It’s an infection caused by bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae. There’s a vaccine for it, and even if you do contract the infection, there’s antibiotics and advanced breathing assistance that can keep it from killing you.
RH-Negativity & Pregnancy
If you are RH negative, it means that your red blood cells lack a certain marker, called RH, within them. Generally, this causes no problems, and the overwhelming majority of people are Rh+. However, if an Rh-negative woman becomes pregnant, and the baby has Rh-positive blood, sometimes the mother’s immune system will attack the baby’s red blood cells. This used to cause all kinds of complications and even the death of the baby, but now, there’s a simple blood test doctors do in the first trimester of pregnancy, and if the mother is Rh-negative, she gets a few shots at specific times during pregnancy, and mom and babe are both happy and healthy.
Polio is largely eradicated in the West due to vaccines but is still quite common in parts of the world. It’s caused by a virus called Poliovirus and in 0.1%-0.05% of cases caused muscle weakness or paralysis, which sometimes lead to death; however, in most people with a normal immune system, polio is asymptomatic – meaning you have the virus, but you have no symptoms; you don’t actually get sick. It’s in those patients where the virus enters and infects the Central Nervous System that paralysis and other devastating symptoms occur.
Tuberculosis (TB) can kill you. Or it can not. People who have TB are often asymptomatic (called latent TB), but the bacteria that causes Tuberculosis can become active at any time, and when it does, it usually affects the lungs, though it can also effect the liver or kidneys. There is a vaccine for TB, but it’s rarely given in the US as cases are so infrequent and usually respond well to antibiotics which kill the bacteria.
Eclampsia is the onset of seizures during pregnancy. Thanks to modern medicine, we now know that before a woman starts having seizures, she develops unusually high blood pressure and protein in her urine. Pre-eclampsia (also know as pre e) can be treated with close monitoring by your doctor and blood pressure medications, along with other medications. Since onset usually occurs late in pregnancy, in severe cases the baby may be delivered early and spend some time in the NICU to save the lives of both mom and baby. There is no full cure for eclampsia other than delivery, but it can be diagnosed and treated far earlier than in previous years.
Rabies is a virus spread by the saliva of infected animals and is deadly if not caught early. Thankfully, most pet owners in the US get their pets vaccinated for Rabies (every year or every three years), and if you’re bit by an animal that may have or does have rabies, there is a treatment of shots you can receive over the course of two weeks (starting as soon after the bite as possible) to keep the virus from taking hold. Symptoms include fever, fear of water, hallucinations, vomiting, and excessive saliva (“foaming at the mouth”). If you’ve been bitten by an unknown animal you MUST get treatment. Just walk into an ER in the US; they can’t refuse treatment regardless of ability to pay.
Measles is a virus that attacks the respiratory system, spread through droplets of mucus when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so technically it’s airborne. Symptoms start off like a cold, then progress to a red or brown skin rash. Complications generally only occur in malnourished people or those with a compromised immunize system, but they can include brain infection and death. Before 1963, nearly everyone in the US got the measles by age 20, but now that nearly everyone receives the MMR vaccine, almost no one gets it anymore.
Typhus is a disease caused by a bacteria called Rickettsia and is transmitted to humans usually via bites from bugs like lice or fleas. Despite the similar name, Typhoid Fever and Typhus are different diseases caused by different bacteria. Symptoms start suddenly and include chills, headache, fever, followed after five to nine days by a rash that spreads over most of the body. Typhus can be prevented by a vaccine administered prior to visiting areas of the world where the disease is still prevalent – Rwanda, Ethiopia, Algeria, sometimes South America – but if contracted the disease is well treated with antibiotics.
If you’re curious about diseases, check out 25 Crazy Diseases Science Can’t Explain.
Scurvy is a disease that develops from a lack of Vitamin C. The human body cannot make vitamin C; it must be obtained from diet and is vital for iron absorption. Symptoms include anemia, swelling, and loss of teeth. To prevent scurvy, drink a glass of orange juice once in awhile.
Wait until you see number 5!
Hepatitis A is a virus that infects the liver and can cause mild to severe symptoms, though is rarely fatal. Those who have Hepatitis A and recover develop a lifelong immunity. There is a vaccine available for Hep A; however, the virus isn’t really much of a threat in the developed world as we’re blessed to have clean water, food, frequent hand washing, and general sanitation, which removes most of the risk.
Remember back in the day when you’d play Oregon Trail in computer class, and the game usually ended by saying “You have died of Dysentery!?” Well, thankfully, that doesn’t often happen anymore, at least in the developed world. Dysentery is inflation of the colon, resulting in diarrhea with blood, caused by an infection of some kind (bacteria, parasites, viruses, etc). The good news is that with treatments, most people recover just fine rather than dying of dehydration.
Smallpox has been eradicated on the planet (that we know of) with the exception of some test samples in labs due to vaccine. It’s a sometimes fatal viral infection that begins with flu like symptoms and then a rash in the mouth, which develop into sores that burst, at which point a rash starts to form on the body, which can take up to three weeks to resolve to the point that it’s scabbed over and scabs have fallen off. The person is contagious from the onset of symptoms until the last scabs fall off. Researchers discovered as recently as 2009 that the way smallpox actually kills is by attacking your immune system. The last known case of smallpox in the US was in 1949.
Typhoid Fever is caused by contact with contaminated food or water, or contact with another person who has Typhoid Fever. It is caused by Salmonella typhi bacteria, and symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, rash, weakness, and bowel discomfort. Though Typhoid Fever is not an issue in most developed countries due to sanitation practices, even if the disease is contracted, patients usually get better with antibiotics.
Tetanus is also known as lockjaw because one of the major symptoms is rigid muscles (which is bad, because your heart is, you know, a muscle). It is caused by a bacteria called Clostridium tetani that once in the body, reproduce and release a neurotoxin into the infected person, which causes the symptoms. Clostridium tetani can live outside the body on surfaces for an abnormally long time, and usually enters the body via a wound, which is why so many people get a Tetanus vaccine or booster if they have a cut or wound that requires stitches. Most people in the US receive a Tetanus vaccine during childhood and a booster in high school or adulthood.
Yellow Fever is mostly spread via mosquito bites, much like Malaria. However, where Malaria is a parasitic infection, Yellow Fever is a virus. Most people who contract Yellow Fever show no symptoms, but for those that do, symptoms range from mild to moderate flu like symptoms to jaundice and severe kidney/liver issues that could result in death.
Rubella is the name for German Measles, and the vaccine for it is administered as part of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) shot most children receive for regular measles in the US. While Rubella is generally considered to be the more mild of the two, it can cause serious harm to a developing baby if a pregnant mother is exposed to the virus early in pregnancy. Otherwise, symptoms are the same as Measles and usually resolve within a few weeks.
Rickets is a disease caused by nutritional deficiency – Calcium, Phosphate, or Vitamin D – and can cause a whole host of issues from malformed bones to Seizures. Thankfully, Rickets is now easily diagnosed and treated. Children born to vitamin D deficient mothers and children on vegan diets are at the highest risk for Rickets.
Pneumococcal disease (sometimes referred to as pneumococcus) is an infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria and can cause everything from ear infections to meningitis (which can be life threatening). There is a preventative vaccine, however, if the disease is contracted, treatment with broad spectrum antibiotics is available.
Leprosy used to mean you had to go live in a leper colony with other lepers, as very little was known about the disease except that it was spread by having contact with those who had it. Leprosy is caused by a very slow growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It takes at least three years, usually, for symptoms to show, though sometimes as many as twenty. Leprosy causes numbness in the extremities and disfiguring, pale sores all over the skin. The WHO estimates that there are less than 200,000 cases of Leprosy worldwide, mostly in Africa or Asia. It’s highly treatable with antibiotics, which can actually cure the disease but cannot repair nerve damage. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids can be used to help with nerve pain and damage while undergoing treatment.
Issues with Premature Babies
Premature babies (babies born before 37 weeks gestation, and very preterm, which is before 28 weeks gestation) don’t really suffer from one specific disease, but rather a whole host of issues, simply from being out of the womb too early. Everything from under developed lungs, to hemorrhaging and infections can be life threatening issues to a premature infant, and there is by no means a “cure” for premature birth, but amazing advances – both in medications that stop premature labor and therapies that support premature babies – have made it so that infants born as early as 22/23 weeks can survive, though survival rates are low. That’s just over halfway through pregnancy as 38-40 weeks is considered full term. Once a baby reaches 26 weeks gestation, it’s survival rates for premature birth shoot up to 80%-90%, albeit with a prolonged stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Babies that would have had no hope in our parents’ generation have a chance at survival thanks to modern technology.
Influenza – or flu – is a an infectious disease caused by one of several influenza type viruses. Symptoms include: Fever with chills, cough, nasal and chest congestion, sneezing, body aches, headaches and general fatigue. While some form of “The Flu” does kill many people every year, those are usually persons who are very old and/or immunocompromised to begin with. For persons with healthy immune systems, the flu is generally a few weeks of feeling awful. There are antivirals available for treatment which can lessen the duration of symptoms, and other medications which can treat specific symptoms. Flu shots are available and pushed on nearly everyone; however, there’s a lot of controversy as of late regarding how effective they may actually be. Best ways to prevent the flu? Wash your hands; stay away from sick people; stay home if you ARE sick; cover your mouth when you cough; and don’t lick things in public.
While HIV is in no way eradicated in the Western world, specific drug cocktails and a prophylactic medication for pre and post exposure have made the disease far more manageable. While safe sex should ALWAYS be practiced without fail, contracting HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, take a look at 25 Stories Of Survival That Defy The Odds.
Bubonic Plague (Black Death)
The Bubonic Plague (or Black Death) wiped out nearly 1/3 of Europe’s population in the 1300’s. A bacteria transmitted by infected rodents and bugs such as fleas and lice, it affects the lymph nodes and causes them to swell and sometimes burst open, and also gangrene of the extremities (hence the “Black” death). Bubonic plague is still found in parts of the Southwestern US, usually in prairie dogs but is treatable with antibiotics.
Photos: 25. F Malan via wikimedia commons, 17. Andres Rueda via Flickr via wikimedia commons, 16. Otis Historical Archives National Museum of and Medicine via Flickr, 14. US Department of Agriculture via Flickr, 13. mygeekwisdom.com (fair use), 11. Welcome Images via wikimedia commons, 10. Welcome Images via wikimedia commons, 6. NIAID via Flickr, 5. Welcome Images via wikimedia commons, 4. Chris Sternal-Johnson via Flickr, 3. whoisjohngalt via English wikipedia, 2. Fersolieslava via wikimedia commons, 1. Welcome Images via wikimedia commons