Science and technology are advancing fast, and significant progress has been made in the way we understand and treat disease. But despite medical breakthrough after breakthrough, new strains of bacteria continue to infect the population. The response time for containing and eradicating disease has improved somewhat. The following scary epidemics and pandemics of the 21st century eluded efforts to end them for quite some time, causing panic across the globe.
Sources: Discovery.com, Wikipedia.org, Healthline.com, Oddee.com, Flu.gov, EverydayHealth.com
Usually, the seasonal flu isn’t something to worry about … unless it’s a mutated version that has somehow found a way to jump from pigs to humans. In 2009, the World Health Organization rated the swine influenza outbreak a 6 out of 6 on the pandemic scale. Found across the world from Australia to Chile to the U.S., the swine flu hospitalized thousands of people in nearly every country and claimed lives among the most susceptible — those suffering from chronic conditions.
The cholera outbreak in Haiti began in 2010, but unfortunately has yet to be contained. Ten months after the debilitating earthquake that shattered much of the country’s infrastructure, people began checking into hospitals by the thousands, and it spread to every province within 10 weeks. While numbers seemed to be improving in late 2012, Hurricane Sandy dealt Haiti another blow, and what should have been a quiet cholera season saw thousands more cases. There were efforts to provide vaccinations to all those in affected areas, and cases were reported in nearby Cuba and the Dominican Republic in 2013.
Avian bird flu has had several outbreaks throughout the 2000s, as large poultry populations became infected and transmitted the virus to humans. Most cases occurred in Thailand, India, China, and Egypt, though isolated cases popped up around the world. Millions of birds died from the disease or were slaughtered in containment efforts, but the disease claimed the lives of humans as well.
Perhaps the first real global epidemic of the 21st century, SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome surfaced in China in 2003. An extremely contagious disease with severe pneumonia-like symptoms, SARS was first detected in late 2002 in the Guangdong Province of Southern China and spread. It was largely contained within Southeast Asia, but the Chinese healthcare system was ill prepared to deal with the numbers of patients needing medical attention. Hundreds of people died before China was able to get things under control. Thousand were evacuated from the country including Peace Corps volunteers, and travel to China was greatly restricted during this time.
Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne disease that saw an explosion of cases in Pakistan in 2011, particularly in the Punjab area. The treatment is quite expensive; with 14,000 people infected in 2011, and thousands more the year before, the Punjab government began taking steps to raise awareness about prevention practices. It eventually persuaded private hospitals to begin dispensing dengue treatment for free, but not before 300 victims lost their lives.
Nigeria and Niger were hit the hardest in a 2009 outbreak of meningitis, a inflammation of the membrane in the body that is dangerous due to its proximity to the brain and spinal cord. Nigeria saw nearly 18,000 cases and 1,000 deaths, while Niger experienced another 4,500 cases with 170 deaths in the first three months of 2009. The WHO began administering millions of vaccinations around the Meningitis Belt from Senegal to Somalia, using nearly a third of the world’s emergency-vaccine supply.
A 2009 outbreak of the Mexican flu occurred in Mexico and the Southern U.S. Though it was the H1N1 virus type, it took a while before Mexico began reporting its infection rates, causing critics to label it the “silent epidemic.” Though it did not have nearly as high a mortality rate as other pandemics, it still afflicted thousands of victims, mostly those between age 5 and 30.
An outbreak of the pneumonic plague in India in 1994 killed hundreds of people after flooding contaminated the water supply. The disease spread so fast the country could do little to halt it. When another case was confirmed in the North Indian Himachal Pradesh state in 2002, officials jumped into action. Brought on by a man who killed and ate a wild cat in the Himalayas, it resulted in 16 fatalities, reportedly due to the quick movement of the government. But as 1994 showed us, it could have been a lot worse.
In November 2005, the World Health Organization received notice that nearly 500 cases of yellow fever had been reported in the Dilling, Abu Jibeha, and Rashad localities of Sudan, with a fatality rate of more than 25 percent. It was the largest outbreak in Sudan since 1940, and a mass vaccination campaign was launched to curb the spread of the disease. Between the WHO and local authorities, the outbreak was largely contained by the end of the year. Constant awareness campaigns are underway to ensure people are educated about the prevention of yellow fever and other diseases.
Sadly, the AIDS epidemic got worse in the 21st century, with numbers at an all-time high. Certain regions such as sub-Saharan Africa are disproportionately affected. It is estimated that as many as one in four people may have HIV or AIDS. While scientists have come up with antiretroviral drugs that can help manage the disease, there is no cure. The best we can do for now is promote awareness about safe sex practices to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, and hope that a permanent solution is found soon. It remains a global epidemic.