5 minute read
3 Mar 2018
7:30 am

Old diseases making potential comebacks


These diseases were previously eradicated or made to cause fewer deaths, but are now threatening to make the comeback of the century.

It was not long ago that having something as simple as a common cold was a life-threatening condition.

With the advancement of medicine and technology, many of these ailments were mostly eradicated around the world. Diseases such as polio, measles and smallpox, which previously affected all regions, now affect only a few, usually economically challenged, countries.

However, with great knowledge comes inevitable counter-arguments. And usually this is a good thing. But not in the case of life-threatening diseases.

Many parents around the world have opted not to vaccinate their children at birth, resulting in ancient conditions seeping back in to society. Only this time, it catches everyone off guard, as it is assumed that most people were vaccinated. It inevitably spreads and, once again, threatens millions of lives.

This is not the only reason why diseases make a comeback. The World Health Organisation (WHO) explains that natural disasters increase the likelihood of disease outbreaks. And unfortunately, developing countries, especially those that are densely populated, are the most vulnerable.

We outline eight diseases that posed serious threats to human life, and how they have begun to creep back into society.

Infographic: Costa Makola

Infographic: Costa Makola


1918 to 1920 saw the deadliest bout of influenza (flu) in the history of the disease. The outbreak was named one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, with a total of 500 million infections worldwide.

Seasonal flu continues to affect countless regions, and is the one disease that consistently affects all regions, regardless of location or economic standing, as it is so infectious. It seems that this is one disease humans may not ever completely be able to shake.

A flu vaccine is recommended, although not guaranteed, to reduce infection.


War-torn regions such as Yemen are still struggling with vicious cholera outbreaks. In April 2017, it was reported by Healthmap that more than 350 000 cases of cholera were recorded, with an average of 5 000 new cases every day. Lack of sanitation is a breeding ground for the spread of cholera, which is contracted as a result of contaminated food or drinking water.

The WHO reported in 2016 that over 54% of cholera outbreaks occur in African countries, with approximately 663 million people using unsanitary drinking water worldwide.

The organisation emphasises a multidisciplinary approach to eradicate the waterborne disease, the most vital of which being to provide as many people with safe, clean drinking water as possible.


The ancient sexually transmitted disease (STD) is increasing, especially in the US. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that syphilis cases increased 18% between 2015 and 2016.

Syphilis can be prevented by not engaging in any sexual intercourse. However, a more realistic way of reducing your risk is by having protected sex. Many who are infected do not show symptoms for years.  It can be cured with medicine prescribed by a healthcare professional, but one can be reinfected.


The first documented case of listeriosis was in 1924. The bacteria was common in animals, and has only affected humans recently. The bacteria is as a result of food-borne bacteria, most common in dairy products, processed meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables and smoked fish. Listeria can spread even if food is refrigerated.

There is no current vaccine. Listeriosis can be prevented by avoiding foods flagged as carriers of Listeria, and by sterilising food surfaces.

If diagnosed, the incubation period could last up to 90 days, the WHO reveals. Complications associated with Listeriosis, including contracting meningitis or developing septicaemia, are responsible for the high mortality rate of this preventable disease.

South Africa has been experiencing a large outbreak of listeriosis since December last year. It is still unclear what food sources could be responsible.


The WHO observed a four-fold increase in measles cases in Europe alone in 2017, when compared to measles cases of the previous year. The WHO’s findings also indicate that measles outbreaks affect 1 in 4 European countries. More than 20 000 cases of measles were reported last year, which the WHO deems as an avoidable tragedy if vaccinations are provided.

Measles requires a baseline vaccination. Children under the age of 15 years are the most affected.

Yellow fever

34 confirmed deaths related to yellow fever have occurred in Brazil alone, from July 2017 to January this year. This may not seem like a large number, but is still cause for concern. More than 100 cases are currently being investigated, to curb any chance of an outbreak.

To illustrate how quickly an epidemic can spread, 962 confirmed cases of yellow fever occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016 as a result of an outbreak in Angola at the end of 2015. The WHO immediately scheduled vaccines for the area.

Vaccination is recommended as a preventative measure, and those travelling to yellow fever-prone areas must be sure to receive the vaccine.

Bubonic and pneumonic plague

Madagascar terrified the world with a confirmed bubonic plague outbreak last year. The WHO recorded a total of 2 348 cases and 202 deaths. In addition, there were 1 791 cases of pneumonic plague.

Although the WHO did well to provide treatment and antibiotics to curb the spread of the plague, South Africa, along with Comoros, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, La Réunion and Tanzania have all been flagged as countries required to possess a plague preparedness strategy.

No new cases of the bubonic plague have been confirmed since November last year.


This disease wreaked havoc in many parts of the world in the 1940s and 1950s, owing to its infectious nature. Polio can cause total paralysis in hours, with the disease invading the nervous system.

Since 1988, the WHO reports that cases of polio have decreased by 99% since 1988. This is mostly as a result of polio vaccines, the only known preventative measure against the disease.

Regions most affected by polio outbreaks to date are Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of which have experienced dismal strategies to try and eradicate the disease.

“Failure to stop polio in these remaining areas could result in as many as 200 000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world,” the WHO explains. It is imperative that all children receive vaccinations for polio to prevent a potentially fatal outbreak.

What you need to know about listeriosis – expert

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