In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio and lost the ability to walk without support. Fifteen years later, he was elected president, yet his pet cause in the latter part of his life was caring for polio patients at his therapeutic program in Warm Springs, Georgia. In the years since, vaccines and other improvements in modern healthcare have eradicated polio, so much so that children no longer take polio vaccines. Yet alarmingly, diseases such as polio are re-emerging, often with crippling and even deadly consequences.
In 2019, a measles outbreak spread across the United States, even though an entire generation had passed without a noticeable epidemic of the disease. In fact, measles had been declared an eradicated illness in the year 2000, yet the first quarter of 2019 saw a jump of 300% in measles cases. The outbreak was so severe that there were 500 cases in one New York neighborhood!
Measles and polio are far from the only diseases that had once been declared eradicated but are now making a comeback. Mumps and cholera, which had previously decimated entire communities but now are only side notes in medical textbooks, are seeing sharp increases among populations in developed countries. And believe it or not, the Bubonic Plague – the disease that caused the Black Death in Medieval Europe and wiped out one-third of its population – is now leading to hospitalizations and deaths. What could possibly be behind medieval diseases claiming lives in today’s industrialized society? Read on to learn more.
The Biggest Driver In Re-Emerging Diseases Is The Anti-Vaccine Movement
Ever since the first vaccines emerged, people have been concerned about how safe vaccines really are. The controversy began at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Edward Jenner discovered that he could prevent children from contracting smallpox if he intentionally infected them with a deadly pathogen.
The earliest opponents of vaccines saw Jenner’s method as unsanitary or unchristian. They also opposed England’s earliest vaccination laws, which required children to undergo a smallpox vaccination, as an infringement on their personal liberties. Today’s anti-vaccine movement is not all that different.
Vaccines Are One Of The Biggest Health Achievements In History
Before Jenner’s discovery, smallpox outbreaks would eliminate entire villages. Before the polio vaccine, children who contracted the diseases and did not die from it were often paralyzed for the rest of their lives. Cholera would contaminate city waterways and thereby cause outbreaks that spanned entire cities and decimated populations.
Vaccines changed all of this. Smallpox cases are now things that you read about in history books or watch documentary movies on. Many today do not even know what cholera is, or whooping cough, or diphtheria. Because generations of children have been vaccinated against these diseases, they no longer pose a threat to public health.
Throughout history, there have been individuals who recognized that after they survived a disease, such as the Black Death, they did not become infected again. In other words, they had become immune because their bodies had produced antibodies that would attack and kill the specific pathogen that caused that disease.
Vaccines build on this idea of creating immunity to a disease by injecting a dead pathogen into the person being immunized. The person’s body may temporarily react as if he or she was becoming sick, but this is actually the process of antibodies being formed that will attack and kill any live version of that pathogen. They will not become infected if they come into contact with that pathogen.
Vaccines Eliminated Polio, Smallpox, Measles, And Other Diseases
Why do children today not get polio, smallpox, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, or any number of diseases that previously killed many of whom they infected? Because successive generations of children have received vaccinations to prevent them from contracting these diseases.
Over time, the pathogens that cause these diseases, for the most part, disappeared. Children today do not even receive vaccinations for polio (except for in some developing countries where the conditions are still present) because the threat of contracting the disease is so small that it is all but impossible.
Yet Many Parents Today Refuse To Vaccinate Their Children
In the year 2007, 10,404 schoolchildren in Texas had non-medical exemptions for the required vaccinations. A non-medical exemption means that while some children are not able to be vaccinated because of medical problems, other children are exempted because of religious beliefs or other concerns that prohibit vaccines.
Ten years later, in the year 2017, that number was five times as high – 52,756 Texas schoolchildren had non-medical exemptions for vaccinations. Over 20% of the state’s school districts had fewer than 83% of students vaccinated; this number is considered to be the threshold for “herd immunity,” which protects the entire population from disease.
In 1973, a team of British pediatricians, John Wilson and M. Kulenkampff, reported that many of the children that they had given vaccines had developed neurological conditions within 24 hours of vaccination. He went public with the results, even though none of the children who had supposedly developed neurological problems saw him until months or even years after vaccination.
With high-profile media reporting on the dangers of the DTP vaccine, many parents in the United Kingdom, as well as other parts of the world where people also saw the media reports, stopped vaccinating their children. Reports of diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus immediately skyrocketed. As a result, as many as 600 British children died.
In that year, Lea Thompson made the film DTP: Vaccine Roulette. The film encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children, as they were unaware of what substances were actually going into their children’s bodies and the harm that they might be doing. The film became so popular that parts of it even aired on The Today Show.
Thompson went on to write the book Shot In The Dark, which also promoted the anti-vaccine movement. Meanwhile, other medical professionals stopped giving children vaccines and encouraged parents to encourage their children’s immune health through holistic means rather than through vaccination. The movement began gaining immense traction, particularly in the United States.
Celebrities Began Encouraging The Anti-Vaccine Movement
Barbara Loe Fisher began claiming that, amongst other things, the DTP and hepatitis B vaccines caused infants to die of SIDS, a claim that has never been proven. She even testified before Congress before dedicating her life to the anti-vaccine movement.
Lisa Bonet, who played Denise on The Cosby Show, claimed on The Donahue Show that vaccines introduce alien substances into children’s bodies. She said that they could cause allergic reactions or more severe effects; either way, parents are wrong to add these substances into their children’s bodies. Instead, they should allow children to develop immunity more naturally.
In 1998, the pediatrician and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield published a report claiming that the MMR vaccine causes children to develop autism. Press conferences surrounding his story led to major media outlets – including ABC News – to begin questioning both the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Wakefield claimed that children should receive the vaccine in three separate doses rather than all at once. Yet the damage was done, as parents concerned about their children developing autism rejected any vaccines in increasingly higher numbers. Celebrities began appearing en masse on television shows to decry vaccines and tout their anti-vaccine lifestyles.
The Wakefield study gave a shot in the arm to the anti-vaccine movement in the United States. However, it had already been widely discredited in the United Kingdom, where it had supposedly been conducted. A series of lawsuits had already been brought against British vaccine manufacturers because vaccines cause brain damage, but those lawsuits had previously been dismissed.
Furthermore, other studies had already proven that there is no link between autism and vaccines. Wakefield’s study was immediately exposed as fraudulent in the United Kingdom. But in the United States, the connection between autism and vaccines was just what worried parents wanted to hear.
The Anti-Vaccine Movement Is Now Considered A Global Threat
In 2019, the World Health Organization named the anti-vaccine movement as one of the ten greatest global health threats because of how it has caused previously eradicated diseases to re-emerge. It is serious enough to be listed alongside climate change, the flu pandemic, and air pollution.
The World Health Organization says that vaccinations are the simplest and most cost-effective way of preventing disease and that they prevent as many as three million premature deaths each year. While many people in developing countries are unable to access vaccines, a growing number of parents in countries like the United States are refusing them.
The 2019 Measles Outbreak Is Attributed To The Anti-Vaccination Movement
The first three months of 2019 saw 1200 cases of measles in the United States, more cases than have been reported since 1992. Measles is extremely contagious – 90% of people who are not immune will contract it if they are close to someone who has the illness. The most common symptoms are fever and a rash, along with a high fever, runny nose, and cough. But for some people, the symptoms are debilitating, and one in four measles cases require hospitalization.
Public health officials declared that the 2019 outbreak was the result of a critical number of people who had not received measles vaccinations. The explosion in New York City was so severe that its mayor, Bill de Blasio, declared the city to be in a public health emergency and fined residents $1000 if they refused to get vaccinated.
As many as half a million people in the United States are unable to receive vaccinations because of health complications. They may have severely weakened immune systems or experience life-threatening allergic reactions, so the immunization alone could put their lives at risk. Since they cannot get vaccinated, they rely on everyone else too.
When a critical number of people become immune to a disease, the disease is unable to spread in that population; this is known as herd immunity. Herd immunity protects everybody, especially infants, the elderly, and those who cannot (rather than those who will not) get vaccinated. Yet the anti-vaccination movement has caused a breakdown in herd immunity, meaning that those who cannot get vaccinated stand the highest risk of getting sick.
This fact has been proven over and over again, and Wakefield’s study has been repeatedly debunked and proven to be fraudulent. Yet many continue to believe that receiving vaccines causes children to develop autism. This belief continues to spread, and it leads to parents refusing to vaccinate their children.
But refusing to get children vaccinated puts them at risk for life-threatening childhood diseases. It also puts the entire community at risk of an outbreak, especially when hordes of parents within the same community refuse to vaccinate their children.
American Children Are Dying Of Preventable Disease
There are some isolated instances in which people who have been vaccinated contract the disease. For example, the pertussis vaccine is 88% effective, and the measles vaccine is 97% effective. This means that 12% of people vaccinated against pertussis, and 3% of people immunized against measles may contract the disease if exposed to it.
What is gravely concerning to public health officials is the number of American children who are being hospitalized and, in some cases, dying of preventable diseases, not because the vaccine was ineffective but because it was never given. If the anti-vaccine movement continues, then outbreaks like the 2019 measles outbreak will become more and more common.
Some Diseases Are Re-Emerging Because Of Decreased Immunity
Sometimes, people who have received a vaccination still get sick. For some, the particular vaccine batch was ineffective, as was the case with several batches from the 1960s. For others, they were in the minority of people for whom the vaccine just is not valid. Maybe their bodies failed to produce the antibodies that would protect them from the pathogen.
But one factor in the re-emergence of previously eradicated diseases is that immunity fades over time. Some vaccinations, such as the flu, provide protection for one season, while others protect a certain number of years. Booster shots help ensure that the vaccinated person remains immune.
Others Are Re-Emerging Because Of Food Safety Concerns
Agriculture and food production in the United States is regulated by a government body known as the Food and Drug Administration. Many consumers trust that the food that they buy is safe because of the inspections that farmers must pass, from both the FDA and the stores that sell the food.
However, cases of unsafe food are often not discovered until after someone becomes sick. In these cases, the FDA is not able to prevent diseases from infecting people and can only act to try to contain the spread and find the source responsible for the condition. As such, some diseases are re-emerging because of issues regarding food safety.
The history of listeria outbreaks is not known, as the first documented case did not occur until 1924, and the listeria bacteria were not discovered until 1940. There are no vaccines for it, as it does not usually pose a substantial threat to public health. Yet it has made headlines in recent years because of listeria outbreaks that are linked to contaminated food. The most famous outbreak occurred in 2011 when 147 people became sick, and 33 people died from eating cantaloupe that contained listeria.
Today, there are 20 known types of listeria bacteria, and the death rate for those infected hovers at a staggeringly high level of 20%. Cases of a listeria infection are often connected to food not being grown and harvested according to regulations; for example, it may be washed with water that had been used by livestock.
Like listeria, the bacteria E. coli were not discovered until the modern era, and we don’t know how many people may have died from it in the past. It also does not have a vaccine, as cases are rare and isolated. Theodor Escherich discovered the bacteria in 1885; it is usually harmless bacteria that live in the colons of healthy people.
E. coli infections occur when water containing fecal matter is used in agriculture, something that goes against food safety regulations. E. coli infections can be fatal, so anytime someone is diagnosed, the healthcare professional must immediately report to the Center for Disease Control. Government bodies then work to find the source of the E. coli and contain its spread.
Food-Borne Illnesses Can Cause Diseases To Resurface
Much of the public is not immediately concerned with diseases such as polio, measles, E. coli, and listeria. Yet they have been in headlines because of how some aspects of modern life are causing outbreaks of rare or eradicated diseases. The anti-vaccination movement is one problem; agriculture and food safety practices are another.
The best way to protect yourself against these diseases is to make sure that you are vaccinated and that your vaccinations are up to date. Make sure that all of your food is thoroughly washed and cooked correctly.
Imagine that you are at a restaurant in Williamsburg, New York, unaware of the measles outbreak occurring there. You have no idea that the person preparing your food – who is not sick – is carrying the measles pathogen. You are also not aware that he sneezed in the kitchen, not directly on the food, but in proximity to it.
Everybody sneezes, and restaurant chefs are no exception. But when your plate of food is brought out to you, you become exposed to measles, and, if you are not properly vaccinated, you can then contract the disease. Food safety is a big, big issue regarding re-emerging diseases.
Nosocomial infections are infections that people develop while being hospitalized. For example, someone who is in the hospital to have a broken arm cared for may go down to the cafeteria, which has also been visited by people who are not vaccinated and are carrying mumps or diphtheria.
Nosocomial infections are a considerable concern for public health officials and healthcare professionals. During a known outbreak, hospital workers may isolate patients who have the disease. But if they are not isolated and strict quarantine protocols not adhered to, then the infection can spread within the hospital.
Drug Resistance Is Also Causing Eradicated Diseases To Return
Before the 1920s, many diseases that may not even raise an eyebrow now meant almost certain death. During World War I, the spread of illness among soldiers was at least as much of a concern as was the threat of gas attacks or enemy fire.
Everything changed with the discovery of penicillin. Penicillin was the first medical-grade antibiotic, and it had a profound impact on how doctors were able to treat deadly diseases. People were suddenly able to survive onsets of tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and polio because of the miracle drug, penicillin.
The Growth Of Antibiotics Led To Disease Eradication
Whereas tuberculosis formerly killed one out of every seven people who contracted it, and tuberculosis outbreaks could turn into country-wide epidemics, many people today do not even know what it is. They are not even concerned about tuberculosis because penicillin eradicated it.
Other diseases were also eradicated with the category of drugs known as antibiotics. Some, like yellow fever, are so effectively treated with medicines that even though they have not been destroyed, they don’t pose a significant risk to public health.
Wrongful Use Of Antibiotics Is Causing Pathogens To Become Immune
Unfortunately, because so many people have misused antibiotics, pathogens have mutated so that antibiotics no longer kill them. About half of all prescriptions for antibiotics are written for people who have a viral infection, even though medicines are only valid at eliminating bacterial infections.
Furthermore, many who take a round of antibiotics do so incorrectly. They may take the medicines at the wrong intervals or stop taking them once they start feeling better. The bacteria that have not yet been killed can then evolve so that they are immune to the antibiotic.
It’s a strange twist on how so much of public health over the past two centuries has focused on humans becoming immune to bacteria. By surviving courses of antibiotics that are misused, bacteria can mutate and reproduce in forms that are resistant to antibiotics.
What this means is that there are new, emerging strands of previously eradicated diseases, such as tuberculosis, that do not respond to antibiotics. Some disorders are simply not curable through the current advances made in public health. Some refer to this drug resistance of pathogens as the “antibiotic apocalypse.”
Much of animal agriculture involves feeding livestock large amounts of antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. When they are raised in incredibly close quarters in what amounts to animal warehouses, the possibility of an infection spreading means that an entire herd could die.
The result is that much of the meat and dairy products that people consume are riddled with antibiotics. The result is decreased immune function and a higher susceptibility to a drug-resistant infection. To protect yourself, either stop consuming meat and dairy or only consume what has been raised without antibiotics.
Unfortunately, diseases such as MRSA (a drug-resistant form of staph infection) are becoming increasingly common. Drug-resistant “superbugs” continue to evolve and cause a more significant threat to public health. Many have already died in the antibiotic apocalypse.
To help turn the tide, public health officials advise that antibiotics only be given as a last resort and that doctors pursue treatments that try to build up people’s immune systems. They are also trying to enact legislation that will ban the use of antibiotics on livestock. Yet scientists are continually discovering new strands of previously eradicated diseases that are now resistant to antibiotics.
One of the best lines of defense that you can take to ensure that you do not fall prey to drug-resistant bacteria is to reinforce your immune system with probiotics. Some studies show that probiotics do not have a long-term effect on immune health, but others show that probiotics are effective at staving off and recovering from diseases.
So next time you feel yourself getting a runny nose and itchy eyes, instead of running to the doctor, get some yogurt (or plant-based alternative) that has live probiotics. You can also drink kombucha tea, which is fermented and contains live probiotics. They will help you develop a more robust immune system that can fight off whatever pathogen is invading.
Finally, to help protect yourself against drug-resistant bacteria, avoid antibiotics as much as possible. People who take medicines for common illnesses have lower immune responses and are less capable of fighting off pathogens on their own. People who do not take antibiotics but take other, more holistic measures in fighting diseases have stronger immune systems.
Next time your doctor tries to write you a prescription for antibiotics, ask if there is an alternative treatment that you can try first. He or she may advise that you take probiotics, take an herbal or food supplement, or just get lots of sunlight. Whatever the case, you should save the antibiotics for the last resort.
Another Cause Of Re-Emerging Diseases Is Global Travel
We live in an age in which we can travel from New York City to Japan or China in only one day. While this incredible convenience has undoubtedly benefited many people’s lives, it also means that bacteria can travel across the entire world quite rapidly.
Diseases that had been eradicated in one part of the world can now re-emerge with deadly force because of how they can travel. For example, while polio may have long been eliminated in the United States, a humanitarian worker in Syria can become a carrier because polio is present there. He or she can then bring it back to the United States and affect people there.
Hardly a day goes by that climate change, and the threat that it poses do not make the news, yet humans remain dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. Previously unknown and unfamiliar weather patterns, submerging of coastal areas underwater, and retreating ice sheets are now such regular news stories that we ignore them.
But we ignore them at our own peril, because climate change may pose the worst threat yet to re-emerging diseases. And the scary reality is that we do not know what the long-term implications of our warming planet will ultimately be.
Increased Urbanization Means Higher Rates Of Disease Spread
Climate refugees who live in coastal areas already have to move into other regions because their homes and villages are becoming submerged under rising oceans. Many are moving into urban areas, which have the most significant potential for disease spread. Why? Because there are so many people living nearby.
Diseases spread in the close quarters of a city much more rapidly than they do in rural areas and villages. The spread is even faster in slums, where many climate refugees must live. What this means is that because of the urban migration associated with climate change, diseases that we thought were eradicated will start spreading with alarming speed.
Refugee camps are notorious for having conditions so unsanitary that many of their inhabitants die or leave voluntarily. Inhabitants often live in tents and have no sanitation. Sewage runs down the roads and contaminates areas where children play. Diseases in refugee camps claim many more lives than elsewhere.
As climate change progresses, more people will be forced into refugee camps, where they will face a high risk of being infected with a deadly disease. These diseases will spread so rapidly, and the resources available in the camps will be so few (as they already are), that health officials will be unable to respond in time.
With climate change, floods are becoming more frequent. When streams of water flow through city streets and landfill areas, they pick up pathogens and provide an ample environment for them to proliferate. Stagnant waters are even worse, as mosquitoes nest in them while the pathogens multiply.
Floodwaters inevitably enter city water supplies, which residents use for everything from drinking to bathing to watering their yards. Floodwaters also enter the streams used for watering agriculture, meaning that the pathogens enter the soil in which food is grown. This was precisely how cholera epidemics tore through Yemen and claimed hundreds of lives.
One challenge of climate change is that it is disrupting everything that scientists thought that they knew about the environment. Whereas meteorologists felt that they understood weather patterns, they are unable to predict whether the way that they used to. The same applies to scientists studying pathogens, plant life, streams, and anything else connected to the earth.
As such, we don’t know what will happen as the earth continues to warm due to our burning of fossil fuels. But if current events are any indication, the problems caused by climate change will only increase as our planet continues to warm.
We Can Protect Ourselves By Promoting Renewable Energy
Nobody wants to fall prey to the threat of global disease pandemics that emerge as a result of climate change. While you cannot guarantee that you will be able to protect yourself, you can act now by advocating for legislation that addresses climate change.
Install solar panels and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. Invest in stocks of renewable energy and divest from energy firms that are polluting the environment. Thank your legislators when they vote for green-friendly policies. You will be doing a lot to promote public health in the face of re-emerging diseases.
Sources “FDR and Polio,” by Amy Berish. FDR Library. “History of Anti-Vaccination Movements.” The History of Vaccines. “2019 Measles Outbreak: What You Should Know,” by Debbie Koenig. Web MD. August 20, 2019. “WHO: Anti-Vaccine Movement a Top Threat in 2019,” by Megan Trimble. US News. January 16, 2019. “Listeria.” Wikipedia. “Escherichia coli.” Wikipedia.