Throughout history, humans have battled with contagious deadly diseases. But with each outbreak, as humans have persevered, their knowledge has also expanded.
Here are five diseases that have changed the course of health care history for the better.
While we no longer hear about smallpox as it has been completely eradicated, it is one of the most significant diseases in the world of health care. Known as one of the deadliest diseases to humans, smallpox is the only human disease to have been eradicated by vaccination.
At the peak of smallpox, people were attempting numerous remedies to try to shield themselves from contracting the disease. People in ancient China and India used variolation – where infected scabs or fluid from another individual was rubbed into superficial scratches on a healthy patient – in the hopes of building immunity. While the practice had mixed results, the methodology spread through Western Europe until it reached America.
In 1798, Edward Jenner developed the first version of what we have come to call “vaccines.”
Variolation meant to fight smallpox set the stage for vaccines, which today are indispensable tools for fighting disease.
Cholera is deadly as it causes “rice water” stools that lead to rapid dehydration and ultimately, death. As of 2014, the disease has led to the deaths of 100,000 to 120,000 people every year.
An outbreak of cholera in 1854 in Soho, London led to the realization of the importance of clean water in public health. It was Dr. John Snow who used statistics and maps to track the source of the outbreak to a nearby water pump and has since been hailed as the Father of Epidemiology – the study of the distribution and patterns of disease spread.
Cholera led to the birth of epidemiology, without which control of infectious disease would be very difficult.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, caused an outbreak in Southern China and Hong Kong in 2003. The disease spread subsequently to different parts of the world and killed an estimated 774 people and infected more than 8,000 due to international travel.
Coordinated global action and communication was required to fight the disease and the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that “Rapid international travel helped SARS to spread, but rapid communications helped to contain it.”
SARS allowed for the realization that coordinated global action and communication is required to fight a global disease.
HIV has grown to become a worldwide pandemic, continuing to be a major threat to vulnerable groups such as women and children. One thing that has come out about from the disease is the idea that working with affected communities and building trust is a must for progress.
A 2013 UNAIDS report concluded that focusing on dignity and respect enhances the success of treatment and prevention measures and that stigma, irrational fears and moral judgment should be avoided.
Stigma and discrimination harm our disease control efforts, but HIV/AIDS have shown us that support works.
The ongoing Ebola epidemic has made health care professionals realize that diseases prey on poor health care infrastructure and facilities. Evidence from Ebola-affected countries Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea suggest that Ebola thrives when health care networks are weak, and that investing in clinics and supplies can help keep diseases such as Ebola at bay.
Government and organization interaction with affected countries is needed. Financial assistance, shared health care knowledge and dispatch of health workers are just a few things that are needed to stop Ebola in its tracks.
Ebola has shown health care professionals that investing in long-term health care systems makes it possible to control short-term crises.