Here is a very skim breakdown of infectious disease history for the citizens of Little Rock, and how Infectious Diseases have impacted the lives of the human population in the 20th Century.
Infectious diseases have plagued the human race as far back as recorded history goes. These infectious diseases, brought on by microscopic bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi, possess the ability to penetrate the human body, maneuver around an individual’s external and internal defenses, multiply, and bring about a myriad of differing symptoms ranging from mild to lethal (Nelson & Williams, 2007; Infectious Disease Society, 2011). Killing more people than the combination of all wars and natural disasters on record, these microscopic organisms continue to pose a serious threat to the health of humans around the world. This situation is further complicated by these organisms’ biological processes which enable them to rapidly evolve, becoming quickly immune to the human being’s natural (i.e. immune response) and unnatural (i.e. antibiotic therapy) response, and emerges potentially more dangerous and lethal than before (Infectious Disease Society, 2011). Once these organisms possess the ability to invade and infect the human population, as well as become transferable amongst the human population, they can quickly move throughout the global population. Outbreaks of infectious diseases are infamous for their ability to cripple populations around the globe, claiming up to the tens of millions of lives at a time (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011A). While the medical system continuously tracks and develops treatments for infectious diseases, scientists are finding that this is an uphill battle. New infectious diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-associated Coronavirus, Henipavirus, and Avian Influenza, are appearing at a rapid rate, threatening the human race with continuous threats of new pandemics. In addition, historic infectious diseases such as West Nile fever, human monkeypox, dengue fever, tuberculosis, and malaria, have begun to re-emerge, threatening populations that had previously contained and controlled them. Finally, common organisms, such as S. aureus and M. tuberculosis have evolved into antibiotic resistant strains which now pose a serious threat to the health of the public (Fauci, Touchette, & Folkers, 2005).
At the start of the twentieth century, infectious diseases were the most common cause of death. The time period between 1900 and 2000 marked the occurrence of some of the most lethal infectious disease outbreaks on record (Fauci, Touchette, & Folkers, 2005; Kilbourne, 2006). Influenza, an infectious virus, was the cause of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Circling the globe in rapid fashion, it is estimated that this pandemic claimed the lives of 25-42 million people world wide (Kilbourne, 2006). Two other Influenza pandemics affected large populations during the 20th century, occurring in 1957 and 1968 (Kilbourne, 2006). Pandemics are generally brought about by Influenza A virus. This form of the Influenza virus possesses the ability to undergo a change termed antigenic shift, resulting in a major change in the genetic makeup of the Influenza A virus. Influenza A viruses that undergo an antigenic shift hold the largest potential for causing a global pandemic, as populations have little to no immune defense to the new virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011B). Another infectious disease that killed millions throughout the 20th century was smallpox. Smallpox, brought on by the viruses variola major and variola minor, continued to infect upwards of 50 million individuals, worldwide, each year, killed an estimated one out of every four infected, and left survivors with severe disabilities (World Health Organization, 2001). Through an aggressive eradication program, a vaccination was developed and the world’s last naturally acquired case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977 (World Health Organization, 2001; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1999).
Other Infectious diseases do not cause global pandemics, but still account for millions of casualties in the areas of the world where they thrive. Malaria, caused by the parasite Plasmodium, infects an average of 250 million people throughout the sub-tropical regions of the world each year, and is the cause of more than 1.6 million deaths each year (World Health Organization, 2010a). Meningococcal meningitis, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitides, is an infectious disease that has caused several outbreaks. Meningitis outbreaks and epidemics have a seasonable variation, and are potentially deadly. Meningitis most recently flared up in 1996 in the sub-Saharan Africa region, “stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east,” and caused 88,199 cases of infection and 5,352 deaths (World Health Organization, 2010b). Another infectious disease specific to this region of the world, more specifically to the countries of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, is the Lassa fever. Lassa fever is a zoonotic disease, and is caused by a single stranded RNA virus. This virus is the cause of an estimated 300,000 – 500,000 infections and an estimated 5,000 deaths each year (World Health Organization, 2011A). Also indigenous to the African region, and also parts of Latin America is the Yellow Fever, an infectious viral haemorrhagic fever caused by an arbovirus. Identified in the mid-20th century, Yellow fever continues to infect an average of 200,000 people each year, causing an estimated 20,000 deaths each year (World Health Organization, 2011B). Dengue haemorrhagic fever, once thought to be a localized infectious disease, made a global resurgence in the late 20th century. Originally only thought to be indigenous to nine countries, in the late 1990’s this virus became classified as “hyperendemic,” and has spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Western Pacific region. Dengue Fever, as of the late 20th century, infects an average of 50 million people each year and causes an estimated 22,000 deaths. This infectious disease, as of 1998, has been labeled “the most important mosquito-borne viral infectious disease in the world” (World Health Organization 2006A; World Health Organization, 2006B).
The 21st century has seen continued emphasis placed on infectious diseases. With the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria, newly emerging infectious pathogens, the resurgence of well-known infectious diseases once thought to be under control, and, possibly most disturbing, the deliberate spread of infectious pathogens such as Anthrax, infectious diseases continue to require diligent surveillance. Several infectious pathogens are under close surveillance, including the new strain of influenza A, Highly Pathogenic Influenza A (HPAI H5N1), C. difficile, and anthrax (Nelson & Williams, 2007; Infectious Disease Society, 2011; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011c; Fauci, Touchette, & Folkers, 2005).