Today we are going to veer into the arena of the morbid and talk about death. It’s something most of us think about and fear, perhaps hoping that when we finally go, we drift away into the ether without much pain or anguish, a smooth transition into the great nothingness or whatever comes next. The most intense or chronic human fears are generally agreed upon, such as the statistically irrational fear of flying, and then more rational fears such as failure, rejection, loneliness and even the possibility of a legion of arachnids marching into our home. Another great fear is sickness, and the onset of the pain or disability it might result in. But what kind of sickness could be so lethal we hardly have time to think about it? That’s what we’ll find out, in this episode of The Infographics Show: Diseases that will End you the Quickest.
Let’s start with a disease that is perhaps the most feared on the planet following a slew of movies depicting its virulence and horrific symptoms. We are talking about the Ebola virus. Most cases have been in parts of West Africa – 11,310 of which resulted in death out of the 28,616 people that were infected. That was just in the period from 2013-2016. Cases of Ebola have also been documented in Italy, Mali, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In the USA, 4 cases of Ebola have been recorded, resulting in one death. It’s spread from animals to human, then further, and easily, spread from human to human. Infection occurs when a person who carries the virus transfers it to another through blood, bodily fluids or secretions. The first stages of the disease are flu-like symptoms, which often progress to intense vomiting, liver damage, and as the movies like to show, internal and external bleeding. It can be treated, but some of those that have died have done so within days of the onset of symptoms.
This one could happen to just about anyone. Imagine after chowing down on your favorite seafood dish, within a matter of hours you were dead. This is a worst case scenario if you contract cholera. It’s a water-borne disease that that involves the fecal bacteria vibrio cholera. It kills about 42,000 to 142,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization. Estimates are made when cases are believed to go undocumented. In extreme circumstances the quick loss of fluids and electrolytes could end your life within two hours of showing symptoms. If you survive the two hours, it could be a few more hours, or days, until you die of dehydration and shock. Cholera thrives where there is poor sanitation, but it’s also found in undercooked shellfish that have traveled through infested waters. Those shellfish could then make it onto your plate. Cholera is rare in industrialized countries, but there are around 1.3 to 4 million cases worldwide each year. If you find yourself with severe diarrhea, drink lots of oral rehydration solution.
Back to the stuff of nightmares, who gets scared when they hear the words “rapidly progressive”? That’s a term often used with necrotizing fasciitis, otherwise known as the flesh-eating disease. According to the CDC, 700 to 1100 cases occur each year in the United States, and it has a 26.6 percent mortality rate. The infection could happen after surgery, or more often when the bacteria infects an open wound, burn, or blister. If your body is already fighting another disease, or alcoholism, or you are generally frail, you may not have a strong enough immune system to take it on and so it can develop into something nasty. A quick image search will reveal that it pretty much tops the scale of nastiness. The CDC says keep wounds clean, and if one does suddenly start to excessively throb and hurt, leading to vomiting and fever, get the fastest Uber in town to the nearest hospital. The CDC didn’t expressly say use Uber… The most recently reported case was that of Edgar Savisaar, an Estonian politician, who lost a leg after being infected in Thailand.
Sticking with bacterial infections, another quick end to your enjoyment on terra firma could be toxic shock syndrome, aka TSS. This infection has been known to make itself present in skin lesions, or even in menstruating women using ultra absorbent tampons. Around half the cases affect the latter. Luckily it only affects 1 or 2 out of every 100,000 women, and unluckily some strains have a 5 percent mortality rate at best. It is very rare to die, but in 2014 a young British girl died in just 5 days after getting TSS from using tampons for the first time, according to the Daily Mail. If you don’t die you could lose a limb. Cosmopolitan published an article in which a 27-year-old American model lost her right leg below the knee, her left toes, and is still in constant pain, following a bout of TSS.
Losing a limb might not be so bad compared to what might happen if you get meningococcal disease. This is a bacterial form of meningitis most common in the very young and also adolescents. It’s such a virulent disease that the USA has implemented enhanced meningococcal surveillance systems to get to it fast if it occurs. Still, half of those that get it die if it’s not treated. Of those who are treated, one in ten to twenty will still succumb to death within 24-48 hours, and out of those that survive 2 out of 10 will suffer brain damage, loss of limbs, hearing loss or other disabilities. The disease is a bacterial infection that affects the brain and spinal cord, that starts with a fever, light sensitivity, a stiff neck, headache and vomiting. The WHO says the strain called meningococcal septicaemia is even worse. Most cases occur in Africa, and resulted in 1146 deaths on the continent in 2014. In the USA there were 375 cases of meningococcal disease in 2015. It is transmitted from person to person through coughing, kissing or sneezing. There are vaccines available fortunately. The second most common form of meningitis is viral meningitis. Most people will recover from this in about 7 to 10 days.
A more common disease, and one that’s been getting some attention in the US media of late is Chagas disease. The disease is caused by a blood sucking parasite. While it’s not deadly for most people, according to the CDC 20-30% of people will suffer “debilitating and sometimes life-threatening medical problems.” Symptoms are many, but include the usual suspects of headache, fever, rash, body aches, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea or vomiting. In more serious cases it can cause death by heart failure. It kills around 21,000 people each year in Central America, South America and Mexico, but according to the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, there might be more cases in the US than is reported. There is no vaccine, but drugs can help you if you get infected. The CDC recommends using insect repellent and not sleeping in abodes made out of straw, mud, or thatched palm, where the bugs like to live.
You may not have heard of Chagas disease, but you more than likely have heard of the Black Death. This is the name given to the bubonic plague, pneumonic plague and septicemic plague. It killed between 30–60 percent of people in Europe and 75 million people worldwide when it was at pandemic levels. We may associate it with the medieval history and images of bedraggled bodies piled up on wooden carts, but it’s still around today. The most common, Bubonic plague, starts with lymph node swellings called buboes. At its worst 4 out of 5 died within 10 days. It’s not so bad nowadays, but on reporting instances of the plague in New Mexico in 2017 the New York Times said, “It is much less common than it once was, but it is no less serious.” Pneumonic plague can be spread via air or water, but septicemic and bubonic plague are spread through blood poisoning after being bitten by fleas. According to the WHO there are only about 650 documented cases each year around the world. The American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene states that almost 22,000 cases were reported globally from 2000-2009, which resulted in 1,612 fatalities. During that time – the last available statistics – 7 out of 56 plague sufferers died in the USA. The New York Times reports that one out of the four cases of plague in New Mexico in 2015 resulted in death. Four more cases of plague were found in 2016 in the same state, but all those infected pulled through. Talking to the Guardian, a middle aged mother and father from New Mexico who survived the Black Death said, “We survived the plague. That’s a big deal.” The man had it worse. He spent several weeks in a coma and had to have both his legs amputated below the knee. His wife was told there was only a one percent chance he’d survive, but he did. Miracles must run in the man’s family, as the report states his brother had won 27 million dollars in the Texas lottery a few years before Black Death hit the family.
We’ll leave it on that almost happy anecdote, and hope that everyone watching will never have to experience any of the diseases mentioned in this clip. If you already have, or would like to share your knowledge about the diseases we discussed, please do so in the comments.