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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Then &

Research Pays Off for All Americans

A baby photo of Mildred Ray Harrison.

Photo courtesy of Juanita Stancliff Kuhn

Mildred Ray Harrison was born in New Orleans on December 17, 1886, the youngest of nine brothers and sisters. She and her sister, Daisy, six years older, lived into their 90s. Their seven siblings – Claude, Stella May, Claudia, "infant daughter, unnamed," Pearl, Stella Claudia, and May weren't so lucky. Before their eleventh birthdays, each had died— taken victim by cholera, in childbirth or by yellow fever.

A baby photo of Mildred Ray Harrison.

Photo courtesy of Juanita Stancliff Kuhn

Thanks to advances in basic sanitation, public health and medical research, most Americans are immune to such tragedy today. But yesterday's infectious diseases still claim the lives of tens-of-millions each year around the world, especially in developing countries. And they are accompanied by new, emerging scourges that threaten us all in the interconnected world of the 21st century.

The Fight against Infectious
Killers in the Developing World

Emergency hospital during 1918-19

Public Health Enemy # 1:
Lower Respiratory Infections

Deaths Worldwide: 4 million people each year

Types: Pneumonia, influenza, and other related diseases

Treatment/Prevention: The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get a flu shot every year. Stop germs by washing hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, and take anti-viral drugs, if prescribed.

Emergency hospital during 1918-19 influenza ("Spanish Flu") epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas. In 25 weeks, the Spanish Flu claimed up to 50 million lives worldwide, including 675,000 Americans.

A photograph of two children standing outside a house.

Public Health Enemy # 2:

Deaths Worldwide: 2.1 million in 2007; 33.2 million living with HIV; 2.5 million newly infected, 1.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa, the region which remains most severely affected, with an estimated 22.5 million people living with HIV. Eight countries in this region now account for almost one-third of all new HIV infections and AIDS deaths globally.

Treatment/Prevention: There is no cure, but there are many medicines to fight both HIV infection and the infections and cancers that come with it. People can live with the disease for many years if receiving appropriate treatment.

Photo iStock

A photograph of a mosquito biting

Public Health Enemy # 3:

Deaths Worldwide: 1 million to 2.5 million each year, with 300 million to 500 million new infections. About 60 percent of malaria cases and more than 80 percent of malaria deaths occur in Africa south of the Sahara. Children under five and pregnant women are especially at risk.

Treatment/Prevention: No vaccine; treated with drugs that interfere with the parasite's life cycle. Prevention is based on avoiding exposure to Anopheles mosquitoes and aggressively treating infected people. If traveling where malaria is common, take anti-malarial drugs exactly as prescribed and prevent mosquito bites by closing windows at night, sleeping under insecticide-treated mosquito nets , covering up your body as much as possible with clothing, and applying insect repellent to all exposed areas of the body.

Photo courtesy of CDC

A photograph of a girl drinking water out of her hands

Public Health Enemy # 4:

Deaths Worldwide: 2.2 million a year, mostly due to dehydration from intestinal infections by bacteria, viruses or parasites, contaminated food and diseases that affect the digestive system. Young children are particularly at risk.

Treatment/Prevention: No vaccine; treated through Oral Rehydration Therapy, an inexpensive solution of salts and other substances administered orally. Prevented by sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Photo iStock

Public Health Enemy # 5:

Deaths Worldwide: 2 million every year; 2 billion of world's 6.5 billion people are infected, with 8 million new cases reported annually. In 2006, 13,779 cases reported in the U.S., the lowest number since national record keeping began in 1953. Babies, young children and people with compromised immune systems, especially those with AIDS are particularly at risk.

Treatment/Prevention: The BCG-vaccine is the most commonly used preventative against TB in the developing world, but drug-resistant strains are on the rise. The internationally recommended approach to TB control uses health workers who closely monitor treatment to ensure that patients complete the full course of medication. This helps prevent new strains of drugresistant TB from developing.

Sources:, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, Reuters AlertNet

Spring 2008 Issue: Volume 3 Number 2 Pages 24 - 25