The coronavirus has infected more than 70,000 people in China and cases have appeared in 26 other countries. Media outlets across the globe are preoccupied with the outbreak, and panic and misinformation are widespread on social media; but infectious diseases have been part of our lives throughout history – and vaccines, hygiene and quarantine have proved remarkably effective in saving lives.
Until a vaccine was made in the 1920s, 200,000 people died from diphtheria every year in the USA alone. There were many instances of families who lost all their children in a single outbreak. The disease starts with mild cold-like symptoms, but then dead cells accumulate in the victim’s throat. The victim has difficulty breathing, their organs shut down one by one and then they (most often) die. These days, the US records only about 5 cases in a decade, all thanks to vaccines.
However, smallpox is the real triumph; probably the most devastating disease in history, but also the only human disease to be made extinct. Smallpox infects almost everyone exposed to it and kills 30% of them. Probably 500 million people died from it in the 20th century. Its infectiousness seems almost supernatural; in 1970 a young man returned home to Germany after a holiday in Pakistan and was placed in quarantine after developing symptoms. By opening his window to smoke a cigarette one day, he gave the disease to 17 people, some of whom were two floors away. Following a global vaccination programme that proved so effective that in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox completely eradicated.
The last known case of smallpox is a tragic story; a woman who worked at the University of Birmingham contracted it via an air duct that linked her office to a lab, where a scientist was studying one of the last smallpox samples on earth. He may have been a little careless and hurried as the sample was due to be destroyed soon. She died two weeks later, and when the scientist in question found out, he killed himself.
Of course, there are some diseases that have confounded scientific research and prevention. In 1948, in the small city of Akureyri in Iceland, many residents experienced a range of extremely varied symptoms that included muscle aches, depression, constipation and memory loss, sometimes very severely and for months; though nobody died. No pathogen was found that could be responsible.
Throughout the 1950s, ‘Akureyri disease’ cropped up in distant places: Louisville in Kentucky, Seward in Alaska, Dalston in England. There were 13 outbreaks altogether, but the disease never passed to neighbouring communities, and instead randomly jumped across the globe. The last known instance of the disease was at an air force base in Texas, and this time it was closely watched by medical investigators. 221 people became sick, some for a week, some for up to a year; most patients completely recovered, however some had relapses after weeks or months. Nothing about the disease made sense: no bacterial or viral agents were found, and hysteria was ruled out because many sufferers were children too young to be psychologically suggestible. It has still never been explained.
But in reality, the deadliest infectious diseases are the ones we know how to prevent and treat. They don’t make the news, because they have been around a long time, and they mainly affect people from lower-income backgrounds. One and a half million people die from tuberculosis every year, but 95% of them are in middle or low income countries. Although, some poorer boroughs of London, like Newham and Brent, have infection rates that nearly match those of Nigeria and Brazil. Similarly, malaria is not a panic-inducing scientific mystery, as it is now completely preventable, but it still kills a million people a year; most of whom are under the age of 5 and live in poverty. The world is obsessed with coronavirus because we are scared that we will catch it. Yet, we forget that many people around the world are living with the mortality rates – that we are so scared of – already.
Image: Senior Airman Areca Wilson via Wikimedia