From Ebola To Mumps, Despite Medical Advancements, Outbreaks Devastate Millions

From ancient Egyptian plagues to the Black Death, outbreaks have historically been devastatingly fatal, sometimes obliterating entire communities.

Though modern medicine has largely eliminated the potential of this type of widespread severity, disease outbreaks can still be extremely dangerous, and even more so when they are not properly treated or prevented.

Here are three reasons why some diseases crop up in modern times, in spite of medical advancements.

Ineffective vaccinations

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While the vaccination debate continues to roar on despite all but definitive proof of their effectiveness, the fact remains that many don’t get vaccinated, and for those that do some vaccinations aren’t effective enough.

One example of this is the Mumps vaccine, the maker of which (Merck) was sued by virologist witnesses in 2012 for mislabeling, misbranding, and falsely certifying the vaccination’s efficacy, defrauding the U.S. government (which purchases 4 million of the doses manually) as a result.

Merck was also accused of manipulating trial results by failing to test the vaccination against a realistic mumps virus, a failure that is alleged to have resulted in a resurgence of mumps outbreaks in 2006 and 2009.

Drug and antibacterial resistant diseases

Image courtesy of NIAID via Flickr.

It’s also true that the nature of diseases change over time, rendering old treatments ineffective and leaving populations vulnerable.

An example of this is Tuberculosis (AKA consumption), which despite eradication half a century ago in developed countries has evolved to become drug-resistant, the Guardian says.

This new type of TB (XDR-TB) mainly affects poorer countries. In modern stages it has evolved to resist old treatments, and due to lack of new medical innovations can rarely be cured.

In South Africa, only 13% of those infected can be cured by existing treatments.

Though research on new treatment regimens are finally underway, unless governments and pharmaceutical companies take the disease (which kills 1.5 million a year) seriously, there will be little hope for a successful cure.

Other diseases have similarly built up resistance to antibiotics, including Gonorrhea, Typhoid fever, and Malaria, a trend which could pose enormous health risk in the future.

Incurable disease outbreaks

Image courtesy of NIAID via Flickr.

Not all diseases are even treatable or preventable. Take the Ebola virus for example, which has killed 1,500 since its discovery in 1976. An outbreak of the haemorrhagic fever has recently caused panic in Guinea, with a death toll from suspected infections at 63 already.

The Ebola virus is only contractible through direct contact with blood, body fluid, and tissues of infected persons, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, or from handling infected animals.

Still, its fatality rate of 90%, violently bloody symptoms, and lack of cure or vaccine make it a terrifying prospect, and a hopeless one for those inflicted.

Other diseases without cures include AIDS/HIV, Polio, and Lupus, of which only Polio has an effective vaccination.

What can be done?

Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, declined to patent it, famously posing the question “Would you patent the sun?” Though he forfeited about $7 billion dollars in doing so, the drug was able to be distributed as widely as possible as a result, and saved millions of lives.

Since medical innovators rely on pharmaceutical sales to drive their research, one solution might be to prioritize health innovation over financial gain by making approval of new drugs “contingent on therapeutic advances that address unmet health needs,” the Wall Street Journal suggests.

Hopefully, more effective vaccinations and treatments will be researched and developed for the good of the world, incentivising medical need over market potential.

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Jennifer Markert