Five infectious diseases that might re-emerge

Published 5 February 2010

Dreaded infectious diseases of the past have largely been kept at bay by antibioitcs and other medical advances; these diseases still linger, though, and could pose a threat – either because some parents refuse to vaccinate their kids owing to concerns about possible links between such vaccination and autism (Mumps), or because terrorist might use the pathogens in a bioterror attack (small pox)

Ever since the swine flu emerged, there have been almost daily headlines about the medical community and government officials scrambling to provide inoculations and deal with an anxious public. It is a scenario that has repeated itself several times over in medical history. Infectious diseases are literally older than the Hippocratic Oath. Thanks to vaccines, antibiotics, and other major medical advances, many illnesses that once terrified populaces have fallen out of the public’s collective consciousness. They still linger, though, and could pose a threat. offers this discussion of five that have the potential to re-emerge:


What it is: Once the leading cause of death in the United States, TB generally attacks the lungs. Its main symptoms are an increasingly bad cough, chest pain, and coughing up blood or phlegm. TB is spread through the air from one person to another — often through coughing and sneezing but also through talking and singing. Despite some misconceptions, it is not transmitted through handshakes, toilet seats or kissing.


Treatment and prevention: One of the first measures in combating TB came during the nineteenth century when sanitoriums were used to isolate victims. The twentieth century brought vaccinations, antibiotics, and early detection tests that resulted in sharply reduced TB rates.

Current status: TB remains on the medical community’s radar screen. After cases started dropping significantly in the early 1950s, cases rose dramatically from the mid-1980s to the early part of this decade. Dr. John Goldman, an infectious disease specialist with PinnacleHealth System, notes that TB tends to follow socioeconomic patterns, and there are still many impoverished regions of the world. World travelers and immigrants continue to bring the TB bacterium into the United States, while increased homelessness also is a factor, Goldman said.

Dr. George McSherry, a pediatric disease specialist at Penn State Milton S.Hershey Medical Center, said the public health system might have let down its guard in the 1980s because of the statistical decline in TB cases. After watching TB rates rise again during the 1980s, however, the medical community launched two major steps, McSherry said. One was “contact investigation,” in which health workers collect the names of everyone who has come in contact with a person diagnosed with TB. McSherry said these people are thoroughly examined and tested for TB and if infected are treated right away.

He said the second step was “direct observation therapy” that calls for a health care worker to monitor a