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MPHonline - 10 Most Serious Public Health Scares Ever

10 Most Serious Public Health Scares Ever By Staff
The late 20th and early 21st centuries may have brought cures for many diseases, but
they have also brought their fair share of new threats to public health. In an age that has
witnessed the rise of international travel, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
and the heavy use of chemicals, it seems there are more vectors for worldwide health
crises than ever. And although there have been numerous unfounded health scares,
there have been several whose dangers were only too real. Wash your hands thoroughly
and stock up on the penicillin as we list the most serious public health scares ever.
10. H5N1 (Bird Flu)
H5N1, or “bird flu,” has appeared sporadically in poultry populations for over forty years,
but it wasn’t until 2004 that it first hit the headlines as a human pandemic. The outbreak
originated in Vietnam and Thailand’s poultry industries and comprised a new, fastmutating strain that was frequently fatal in humans. Some experts predicted that the
disease would evolve into a more dangerous form that could lead to mass human
infections. Fortunately this didn’t take place, but 566 confirmed cases and 322 deaths
still resulted, and 400 million poultry were killed worldwide, either by the disease itself or
in a cull to prevent the spread of the virus. Although the outbreak is no longer the focus
of media attention, a steady trickle of deaths is still being reported in many parts of the
world, including China and Indonesia.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus was arguably the most devastating pandemic of the
20th century. Since it was heralded as an epidemic in 1981, HIV/AIDS has killed over 25
million people, infected around 0.6% of the world’s population, and prompted numerous
multimillion-dollar public health campaigns to contain it. When the condition was first
discovered, the backlash against the gay and drug-using communities (who were at the
highest risk of contracting the disease) was very high, and experts gloomily predicted
that it would decimate entire populations. Despite these predictions not being fulfilled in
Europe, AIDS continues to destroy countless lives in Africa, with some regions suffering
an infection rate of up to 25%.
MRSA is a particularly serious problem for hospitals: a strain of common bacterium that
has evolved to be flesh eating, virulent and highly resistant to antibiotics. Victims
frequently suffer from wounds or sores that fail to heal, rashes and secondary infections,
with a death rate of 20-50 percent depending on the strain. MRSA is most common in
hospitals, which contain a high volume of people with compromised or weakened
immune systems who are highly vulnerable to the disease. On the other hand, it’s
potentially one of the easiest public health problems to eliminate at the source: experts
say that doctors following proper hygiene procedures at all times could greatly reduce
the number of cases.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is a flu-like virus discovered in 2002 that quickly
made the headlines for its gruesomely high mortality rate (especially among the elderly)
and its potential for causing a pandemic. The disease emerged from the Guangdong
province of China and spread quickly through air travel, eventually infecting nearly 8,500
people across the world. Only effective quarantines and screening of air passengers by
several different governments brought the disease under control, but not before it
claimed 916 lives.
6. Ingested Plastic e.g. BPA
Another insidious health risk we’ve seen in recent years comes not just from our food
and drink, but also from the very containers that we use to serve them. Many of us drink
from plastic bottles and cups that contain harmful substances like phthalates and
Bisphenol A (BPA). Research has shown that sufficiently hot or acidic drinks can break
down the integrity of these containers and cause them to leak into the bottle, causing
them to be consumed. These chemicals can have effects ranging from obesity and an
imbalance of hormone levels in the body, to the damaging of growth and development
in children. Prof Dr Mustafa Ali Mohd, head of the Shimadzu-Universiti Malaya Medical
Centre (UMMC) center for xenobiotic studies, has even called for plastics to be
immediately banned and replaced with paper for certain drinks.
5. Thalidomide
Thalidomide was created by a German pharmaceutical company in the late 1950s as a
tranquilizer intended to prevent women from suffering from morning sickness. Sadly, it
turned out to have a devastating side effect: children who were exposed to the medicine
in the womb often developed birth defects, which included missing and shortened limbs
and facial deformities. This was eventually revealed to be a result of a chemical that
inhibits growth: since most women took the medicine in the first three months of
pregnancy, it often led to body parts failing to form properly. An estimated 10 to 20
thousand infants were affected before Thalidomide was banned in the early 1960s,
although the drug is still controversially used today to treat illnesses such as leprosy and
some cancers. Francis Oldham Kelsey, a Canadian pharmacologist and reviewer for the
United States FDA made this remarkable discovery and was awarded the nation’s highest
federal civilian service award in 1962.
4. Mad Cow Disease/BSE
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is a disease of the nervous system in cattle and is
caused by proteins called prions infecting the brain. The disease devastated the UK’s
beef industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leading to a ban on exporting the meat
for years. To make matters worse, BSE-infected beef turned out to cause a strain of
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans: the outbreak killed around 200 people in cases
around the world and may eventually kill many more because of the disease’s long
incubation period. Sadly, the crisis was caused by human error: cattle being fed infected
carcasses led to the disease spreading, then lax slaughtering practices caused nervous
tissue to be mixed with lower-quality meat products like hamburgers, allowing it to infect
3. DDT
In the interests of controlling one menace to society, there is always the risk of creating
another, perhaps greater, danger. That was the case with DDT, a powerful insecticide
used on crops, which was said to have potentially catastrophic effects on the
environment and public health. Since the metabolized chemicals in DDT can damage
human hormones, the effect of the insecticide was to increase the risk of premature
birth or low birth weight in babies whose mothers were exposed to it. The chemical also
persisted in the ecosystem, which could cause a dangerous build-up in animals higher up
the food chain. In the 1970s and 80s the chemical was banned as a pesticide in most
countries, although it continues to be used in India and North Korea.
2. Asbestos
Asbestos is a set of silicate minerals found in nature and composed of long, thin fibrous
strands. It was commonly used as both insulation and fireproof material from the
industrial revolution onwards, so it was a nasty shock to architects when they learned
that breathing in fibers from the material could lead to serious pulmonary diseases,
including cancer. During the 1970s, a convergence of factors, including large numbers of
asbestos products on the market, factories polluting local neighborhoods and workers
suffering heavy rates of exposure, combined to cause general uproar. Since most of the
diseases caused by asbestos have a latency period of anything up to 50 years, many of
them are only just showing up on death statistics now, but it is estimated that
approximately 10,000 people die of asbestos related causes in the US per year.
1. MMR Jab/Autism Link
It’s said that health scares can cause more trouble than the actual health risk itself, and
that was definitely true of the backlash against the Measles, Mumps and Rubella jab. The
MMR was a combined vaccination against childhood diseases introduced in 1988. Ten
years later, a medical researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a paper that
suggested a link between the injection and certain forms of autism. The tremendous
backlash against the vaccine that followed lowered immunization rates from 92 percent
to 73 percent in the UK and may have led to a number of measles deaths amongst
children. An investigation later revealed that Wakefield had been paid more than
$630,000 to find a link between the vaccine and condition, and that he may have
fabricated some or all of his research. A truly infamous case of a health scare that caused
more damage than the problem it was meant to address.