(George Curry Media) – Infectious diseases kill more people worldwide than any other single cause. Infectious diseases are caused by germs. Germs are tiny living things that are found everywhere – in air, soil and water.
The four main kinds of germs:
• Bacteria – one-celled germs that multiply quickly and may release chemicals which can make you sick.
• Viruses – capsules that contain genetic material and use your own cells to multiply.
• Fungi – primitive plants, like mushrooms or mildew.
• Protozoa – one-celled animals that use other living things for food and a place to live.
The Zika virus, transmitted by the aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquito, has spread to at least 32 countries. The mosquito that spreads the virus is found in parts of the United States, as well as many Latin American and Caribbean countries, particularly in Brazil. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning pregnant women against travel to those areas; health officials in several of those countries are telling women to avoid pregnancy – in some cases for up to two years.
The worldwide threat of Ebola and Zika is new, but these two infectious diseases have been around for decades. The Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976, in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And researchers studying yellow fever in Uganda’s Zika forest isolated that virus in a caged rhesus monkey nearly 70 years ago.
The world has changed so much since the emergence of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. HIV was first reported by the CDC in 1981, but scientists now date the emergence to the 1940s and date the period of ignition and circulation in sub-Saharan Africa to between the 1880s and 1950s.
The Zika virus continues to spread, with the World Health Organization predicting that as many as 4 million people could be infected by the end of the year. So far, there have been 52 cases in the U.S. associated with travel abroad, according to the CDC. Suspected to be associated with the birth defect microcephaly and the paralyzing Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Zika remains a constant in the news as governments scramble to warn their citizens about the risks.
Zika is commanding attention because of an alarming connection between the virus and microcephaly, a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads. On its own, it can cause severe developmental issues and sometimes death.
Scientists believe there has been a significant increase in microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains. That strongly suggests that the virus is to blame. However, it is important to understand that even though Zika has been found in the brains of a small number of babies with microcephaly, that still does not prove the virus is to blame.
Researchers from the CDC are just arriving in Brazil to study mothers and babies in order to understand, for sure, whether the Zika virus is linked to babies born with abnormally small heads (microcephaly).
What is known for sure is that infectious diseases are the leading killers of people living in poverty. Any map of all of the infectious diseases that present epidemic challenges around the world are in underdeveloped countries, where poor, undernourished and uneducated people live: sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.
Even in the United States, there is a largely hidden burden of infectious diseases caused by a group of infections known as the neglected infections of poverty. Like their neglected tropical disease counterparts in developing countries, the neglected infections of poverty in the U.S. disproportionately affect impoverished and under-represented minority populations.
Researchers from George Washington University identified six major distressed regions of poverty in the United States: Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, other areas of rural poverty especially in the American South, Native American tribal lands, the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, and highly racially segregated urban areas including mostly Black metro areas adjacent to the Great Lakes and in the Northeast.
You can get infected by touching, eating, drinking or breathing something that contains a germ. Germs can also spread through animal and insect bites, kissing and sexual contact. Vaccines, proper hand washing and medicines can help prevent infections.
In spite of the importance of all these factors, I am left with the words from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “A vaccine might also be helpful, but improvements in housing infrastructure, infection control in day care, and reductions in social stressors may help to reduce exposure, virus reactivation rates and ultimately, related health disparities.”
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her health care provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.