Infectious Diseases and Their Effect on Human Lives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases

By Barry C. Fox, M.D., University of Wisconsin

Throughout history and in recent times, infectious diseases such as malaria, the plague, and Ebola have played a major role in transforming the healthcare system. With the outbreak of disease comes fear and uncertainty about containment. However, there is also evidence of positive outcomes from these trying times. What can they be?

A nurse drawing blood from a patient.
The Ebola outbreak of 2014 resulted in a newfound interest in and appreciation for public healthcare. (Image: Leonie Broekstra/Shutterstock)

For most people, Ebola was a virus that mainly affected people in rural Africa. Many people in the United States were even unaware of it. But during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the virus crossed oceans and eventually made it to the United States. But, along with fear came some positive outcomes.

Positive Outcomes of the Ebola Virus

The citizens of the United States had a newfound interest in and appreciation for public healthcare. They learned that public health played a crucial role in keeping the country safe and that it cannot be taken for granted.

They became more aware of the need for quarantine to stop the spread of diseases and how breaking the rules can put an entire country at risk.

They also saw first-hand the multiplication factor of disease that starts with one infected person. This understanding, and the misfires that occurred when Ebola entered the United States, resulted in the improvement of people’s capabilities to defend themselves against future diseases.

They are now much better prepared as individuals, hospitals have better systems and protocols in place, and hazmat suits and precautionary items are well in stock.

Learn more about moldy menaces and fungal diseases.

Innovations Sparked by the Ebola Outbreak

The Ebola vaccine being prepared in a syringe.
During the Ebola outbreak, healthcare officials were willing to go to any lengths to save lives, including untested treatments. (Image: ChiccoDodiFC/Shutterstock)

An international crisis like the Ebola outbreak sparked many innovations. The Food and Drug Administration took radical steps and were willing to do whatever it took to save lives, despite strict protocols and regulations for drug development and drug trials.

Untested and unproven treatments were given to both Americans and Africans who were on the brink of death. It was inspiring to see how the global community pitched in to try to avert a complete disaster and save lives.

Other positive outcomes came in the form of social media or apps to spread the word of pockets of disease outbreaks, or the culling of keywords from the Internet searches to try to put the pieces of a larger puzzle together. This increase in the pace of communication resulted in better synchronization around the world of information gathering, resulting in better response times.

This is a transcript from the video series An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What Affects the Spread of Infectious Diseases?

The spread of infectious disease depends largely on how people interact with one another, the environments they live in, and their interactions with the animal world.

During the Ebola outbreak, epidemiologists and other scientists were called in urgently to try to determine the cause and origin of the disease. They looked for Patient Zero, traveling backward to determine where the very first human case originated, and then tried to find the ultimate source of the disease.

In this case, cultural practices, especially funeral rites, were a major source of transmission. They tracked contacts to determine how the disease was passed from person to person, and how it spread so quickly to neighboring African countries. Having specific protocols to track disease patterns allowed the virus to be somewhat contained.

Learn more about viruses: hijackers of our body’s cells.

How the Plague Affected the Course of Human History

The plague is one of the oldest infectious diseases and, like Ebola, often spread through countries and continents unchecked. Many people suffered and died due to the lack of knowledge of germ theory or without the tools for diagnosis of illnesses.

Also known as the Black Death, the plague swept through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and was probably one of the greatest health disasters in recorded history. Nearly 200 million people worldwide died of the plague, and it took Europe four centuries for its population to recover.

Painting showing people suffering from bubonic plague.
The bubonic plague was one of the greatest health disasters that killed nearly 200 million people worldwide. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In Irwin Sherman’s book, Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, he discusses diseases that have had major social and political influences on populations.

One example from his book is the Black Death, which originated in the Yunnan province in southwest China in 200 B.C., and then was spread by Italian merchant ships to the rest of Europe in the 1300s.

Ring Around the Rosie and the Plague Connection

Ironically, one of the popular nursery rhymes, “Ring Around the Rosie”, is allegedly a testimony to this terrible illness. A rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin was one of the common symptoms of the plague.

People who believed that the plague was transmitted by bad smells carried posies to protect themselves and the ashes refer to the cremation of the bodies upon death.

Learn more about the germs that matter in our daily life.

Causes of the Plague

The predominant theory of disease transmission of the plague up to the 1860s was the miasma theory—that bad air, poor hygiene, and contaminated water were the cause.

In the 1800s, the founder of modern-day nursing, Florence Nightingale, was one of the staunchest believers that filth and unsanitary conditions were a prime component of disease transmission. She brought strict new standards of sanitation to areas filled with the plague and malaria.

Even without fully understanding germ theory, she saved many lives by just improving sanitation and quarantining sick patients. It became clear that the plague was contagious, but up until the mid-19th century, the concept of germ theory did not exist.

Common Questions about Infectious Diseases

Q: Which infectious disease sparked a newfound interest and appreciation for public healthcare in the United States in 2014?

During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the citizens of the United States had a newfound interest and appreciation for public healthcare.

Q: On which factors does the spread of infectious diseases depend?

The spread of infectious diseases depends largely on how people interact with one another, the environments they live in, and their interactions with the animal world.

Q: What was the predominant theory of disease transmission of the plague up to the 1860s?

The predominant theory of disease transmission of the plague up to the 1860s was the miasma theory—that bad air, poor hygiene, and contaminated water were the cause.

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