The media frenzy over the Ebola outbreak this past year did much to raise awareness of the disease and to fast-track research and treatments. That’s a plus.
But the attention on a virus that resulted in less than five deaths in the U.S. (although more than 10,000 worldwide) had the downside impact of drawing interest and work away from a number of diseases that do far more damage routinely than the occasional outbreaks of Ebola. True, Ebola is very lethal, frightening in that it can be spread through medical professionals, and horrifying in how it kills.
The question is, where do we direct attention and resources, particularly now that the Ebola epidemic is subsiding, to either prevent the next epidemic—or to curtail a disease that affects many more people.
Here are some possibilities:
Still a major health threat, Tuberculosis is becoming more resistant to the most common drugs used to treat it. There were over nine million new cases of Tuberculosis worldwide in 2013 and 1.5 million people died from the disease. New cases are on the decline—slightly—and drugs have decreased the death rate from Tuberculosis by 45% since 1990. But there were over 480,000 cases of multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis in 2013, and drug resistant strains have become significant killers for people with compromised immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients.
Though most cases of Tuberculosis (95%) are in other countries, the disease is still prevalent in the U.S. in areas such as Appalachia. And a person infected with the TB bacteria can infect 10-15 other people over the course of a year.
Previously-Conquered Diseases Making A Comeback Because of Anti-Vaxxers
Measles, Pertussis, and other childhood diseases are now issues again, because in some communities, the vaccination rates have dropped below the levels necessary for herd immunity. This had led to spikes in new cases—and deaths. The focus is drawing resources away from other diseases.
A shrinking world has made for bigger challenges in the battle for effective flu vaccines each year. For half a century, global systems have helped guide the composition of recommended vaccines, with significant success. But in 2014, changes in viruses created a situation where there was a big miss—instead of the recommended vaccine being its typically 60-plus percent effective in preventing flu cases, the vaccine proved to only be about 29% effective. And more new virus strains are showing up each year.
Rotaviruses account for between 20 and 60 deaths of children under age five in the U.S. each year, in spite of vaccinations. Globally, there are more than 110 million cases each year, resulting in over 440,000 child deaths.
Because progress has been made on the HIV/AIDS front, it’s easy to assume that we’re winning the battle against the virus. But there’s still a long fight ahead. HIV/AIDS still kills more than 1.6 million people worldwide each year, and there still is no cure. People are living longer with the virus—many nearly as long as contemporaries without the disease, thanks to treatment—but the fatality numbers are still dramatic, especially when compared to the deaths last year from Ebola (.000625% of total HIV/AIDS deaths).
There are plenty of other challenges, too—malaria, polio, and scores of “orphan” diseases that are finally getting some notice. Ebola is certainly a serious world health concern, but it’s important to keep outbreaks of any disease in perspective, so sensible strategies for stopping them can be used.
It’s also important, now that Ebola isn’t on the front page anymore, that we don’t forget the damage it can do.
What do you want to build today?