There’s no denying that the idea of Ebola is terrifying. A contagious disease with a historically high fatality rate (up to 90 percent) and no licensed treatments or vaccines available, it’s the stuff of horror movies — and perfect fodder for news outlets that cater to the fear factor. The painful death and potential for bleeding — namely the blood oozing from the gums and stools — don’t do much to ease our concerns.
But is it the "ISIS of biological agents," as CNN has called it? This feels like a stretch, at least on American soil. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to say that the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is very low. The disease is surprisingly difficult to catch; transmission requires close contact with the blood, saliva, sweat, feces, semen, vomit or soiled clothing of an Ebola patient who is showing symptoms of the illness. It’s not that sneaky. It’s serious and severe and certainly wreaking havoc in West Africa, but the CDC is diligently doing its best to make sure the same doesn’t happen in the U.S.
On the other hand, we have some serious illnesses in the States that should be cause for concern. Enterovirus 68, for example, has infected at least 628 people, mostly small children, since August. Five deaths have been confirmed and many components of the virus remain a mystery. Why are we so obsessed with Ebola?
“When people are anxious about a threat like Ebola, it doesn’t necessarily matter if they look at numbers, facts and probabilities,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Because of the way our brains work, something rare and exotic is much scarier than something that’s familiar.”
With that in mind, PBS NewsHour asked the experts which diseases you should be worried about if you live in the U.S. — or at least diseases you should be more worried about than Ebola. Here’s a few that they came up with.
1. Enterovirus 68
Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) is a non-polio enterovirus first identified in California in 1962. It is a mild-to-severe respiratory illness that spreads from person to person when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or touches an infected surface.
From mid-August to Oct. 10, 2014, the CDC confirmed a total of 691 people in 46 states and the District of Columbia with the illness, almost all of them children with asthma-like symptoms. The first cases of EV-68 were admitted to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri in early August. By the end of that month, the the hospital was admitting 30 to 35 cases a day.
“It spreads just like the common cold, but we don’t know how many will get a cold and how many will need hospitalization and how many will end up with polio-like illness,” Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, director of infectious diseases at the Missouri hospital said. “In terms of what’s at our feet right now, EV-D68 has become the most important virus.” And just as we start to understand it, it evolves. “In Colorado, 10 patients developed polio-like symptoms, with limb paralysis and difficulty breathing,” PBS notes. “Four of those patients tested positive for enterovirus 68.”
CDC says that it is continuing to collect information from states and assess the situation to better understand EV-D68 and the illness caused by this virus … and just how widespread the infections may be.
Measles? Yes, measles. The virus that causes a rash and infection of the respiratory system was nearly eradicated in the U.S. after widespread availability of a vaccine in the 1960s, but it’s back.
In 2008, thanks to international travel and parents opting out of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine for their children, the virus has resurfaced. So far this year, there have been 18 outbreaks with 594 confirmed cases, according to the CDC. And it’s pretty contagious; in the days before routine vaccinations, each case was estimated to cause another 17 cases.
Measles is not highly fatal; for every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die. But it commonly leads to ear infection, and up to one in 20 gets pneumonia. It can cause deafness and permanent brain damage. It can also lead to subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a rare neurological disease that devolves into hallucinations and seizures and usually death within one to three years.
3. Whooping cough
Whooping cough, the highly contagious respiratory disease also known as pertussis, has been on the rise since the 1980s. Although there is a vaccine for it, 48,277 cases of pertussis were reported in the U.S. in 2012 — and many cases go uncounted. The 2012 total was the highest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1955 when 62,786 cases were reported.
It is caused by a bacteria and brings on violent coughing, which can make it very hard to breath. According to the CDC, hospitalization is required for about half of infants younger than 1 year of age. Of those hospitalized, one in four get pneumonia, one or two in 100 will have convulsions, two thirds will have slowed or stopped breathing, one in 300 will have encephalopathy (disease of the brain), and one or two in 100 will die. During the 2012 outbreak, there were 20 deaths attributed to the disease.
4. Infection from drug-resistant bacteria
For the last 70 years, we’ve been using antibiotics to treat infectious diseases, and they have saved many lives. But in a shining example of “too much of a good thing,” we’ve used them so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms they are designed to subdue have started fighting back. Bacteria have adapted and are getting stronger than ever, rendering many antibiotics ineffective.
Because of this, every year in the United States at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. And shockingly, at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, according to the CDC.
One of the most virulent of the drug-resistant bacteria is called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The CDC estimates that there are 80,000 MRSA cases every year, causing 11,000 deaths annually.
5. Influenza and pneumonia
The flu may seem like child’s play compared to Ebola, but get this: Influenza and pneumonia ring in at number seven on the CDC’s list of top death causes in the U.S. More than 53,000 people died from influenza and pneumonia in 2010.
Millions are hospitalized for the illness, the CDC’s Anne Schuchat says, and those at the greatest risk include babies, young children and the elderly.
“Last year, more than 100 kids died from flu in the U.S. And that’s something that we do have vaccines for,” Schuchat said. “It may seem familiar, but even healthy children get influenza and can die from it.”
While Ebola requires direct contact with bodily fluids of someone who is infected, influenza is transmitted through droplets sprayed from coughs and sneezes — making them easy to inhale. The tragedy, says Jackson, is that so many deaths from flu could be prevented with the annual flu vaccine.
“We have a vaccine and an antiviral medication for influenza, and it still causes deaths,” she said. “We have Americans afraid of Ebola, but fewer than 50 percent of Americans take advantage of the flu vaccine, and it’s something that’s going to be here. It’s coming.”
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