Three Infections You Should Worry About More Than Ebola

Three Infections You Should Worry About More Than Ebola

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Our nation has been struck with Ebola fever— not literally, of course, but rather a rising tide of fear that the virus will sweep across the United States. In fact, since the first case cropped up in Texas, tracking Ebola has become something of an American obsession— and not a healthy one.

“The idea that Ebola will take over the United States is an unfounded fear,” said Dr. Liise-Anne Pirofski, chief of infectious diseases at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Because the incubation period is relatively brief— only 2 to 21 days —Ebola isn’t likely to spread undetected and suddenly emerge in vast numbers, added Dr. Robert Schooley, chief of infectious diseases at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. As for the Ebola case in Texas? “I think it was very much an exception,” he told Yahoo Health, adding: “It’s a threat in any place that airplanes can land, but we have the means to prevent it from spreading. I don’t see Ebola as the biggest infectious-disease worry for the people that I take care of.”

Related: Say Hello to the Latest Mosquito-Borne Virus: Chikungunya

So what should we be worried about? It’s tough to predict since it is the unpredictability of certain bacteria and viruses that often makes them so alarming, Schooley said. But there are some existing viruses and bacteria that pose an ongoing threat— and that you’re much more likely to catch than Ebola.

Influenza

The flu doesn’t have an exotic, tropical-sounding name— and we are able to vaccinate against it with some degree of efficacy. Yet it is still a major killer in the United States. “More people will die this winter from the flu than Ebola,” said Schooley. Influenza does pose a very real, mortal threat, “particularly because we’re never able to predict with 100 percent certainty which strains will be circulating,” said Pirofski

In fact, as recently as 2009, a strain emerged that wasn’t covered by the vaccine. And it wasn’t just the normal populations of concern— the very young and the elderly —that were struck down, said Pirofski. An unusually high number of people in the prime of their life were affected. The reason: In some cases, young, healthy people’s immune systems may respond too exuberantly to the flu virus, and the resulting inflammation may actually exacerbate the illness, explained Pirofski. 

MRSA

There are an estimated 75,309 cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, infection in the United States, according to CDC tracking data. Compare that to one currently confirmed case of Ebola in the United States. What exactly is MRSA? Simply put, it’s a strain of staph bacteria that doesn’t respond to the antibiotics traditionally used to treat the infection. 

“Antibiotic resistance is a major threat,” said Pirofski. “By definition, these organisms can’t be controlled with existing therapies, and they are very entrenched in some of our larger cities and more advanced tertiary- care hospitals. You don’t have to go to West Africa to get them —you can go to your local hospital, or maybe even some other health-care provider settings, and you can acquire these organisms.” 

Although MRSA infections in hospitals are on the decline, a CDC study revealed that the resistant bacteria is still capable of causing life-threatening infections, particularly in hospital patients. 

Related: Sierra Leone’s Chief Ebola Doctor Contracts the Virus

Resistant Gonorrhea 

An estimated 820,000 new cases of gonorrhea crop up in the United States each year, and now, we’re grappling with a form of the bacteria that doesn’t respond to the treatments we’ve long relied on. In the early 2000s, strains of gonorrhea resistant to cephalosporins— the antibiotics used as the primary defense against the sexually transmitted infection —began to show up in East Asia. Now, the resistant bacteria are here— a problem the CDC calls “an urgent threat.” “[Resistant gonorrhea] has really emerged as a concern in the United States more recently,” Pirofski told Yahoo Health. According to a 2013 CDC report, there are an estimated 246,000 cases of resistant gonorrhea in the country each year. 

And alarmingly, many people, particularly women, who are infected don’t show any symptoms (or have only very mild ones), giving resistant gonorrhea the potential to easily spread. “We really do not know what causes some people to become very ill and some to just [harbor] it,” said Pirofski. “But even people that just [harbor] it are capable of transmitting it. That’s a huge problem.” 

Although it rarely kills people, when left untreated gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility in women. And, according to the CDC, it can spread to the blood, resulting in a potentially life-threatening condition called disseminated gonococcal infection, which is characterized by arthritis, inflammation of the tissue covering tendons, and dermatitis. 

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