Ask Emily

26 04 2012

What’s the deadliest infectious disease ever and what currently is the most deadly infectious disease?

The answer to this question is more complex than simply counting up numbers of people who die from infection. For example, diseases like measles and smallpox have proved to be far deadlier in some populations—such as Native Americans—than in others, because of population differences in disease resistance.

Another variable is intensity of the illness a pathogen causes. Influenza comes in many forms of virulence, and as the Spanish flu pandemic of the early 20th century made clear, even that virulence can vary depending on specific population features; the Spanish flu, which took an estimated 50 million lives, killed the young most relentlessly.

Even an individual disease vector can wax and wane in terms of how virulent it is or which tissues it invades. For example, Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the infamous Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century, may vary over time in its virulence and is far more deadly when transmitted as an aerosol to lung tissues than when it invades the lymph and causes the bubos that characterize it.

Another issue is, how do we calculate “deadliest?” Is it in terms of sheer overall numbers, or do we calculate it in terms of how many people it kills among the number infected? For the sake of addressing this question, let’s talk about both.

Historically, in terms of sheer numbers, the deadliest diseases were smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, plague (e.g., the Black Plague), and malaria. According to a handy Website, the Book of Odds, which calculates odds for us, measles has killed about 200 million people worldwide in the last 150 years and still kills hundreds of thousands in the developing world. Thanks to vaccines, the odds of contracting measles in the United States today are very low unless you are an unvaccinated person living in areas where vaccine uptake is low.

The story on smallpox is similar—it may have killed more people by percent or sheer numbers than any other infectious disease in history, including 300 million in the 20th century alone by some estimates. Yet smallpox as an infectious disease no longer exists thanks to its total elimination through vaccine campaigns.

Thus, along with the plague, smallpox and measles have, for millennia, been the historical killers of humans and would still be among the deadliest infectious diseases today were it not for vaccines. What we have left are some old killers on the list—tuberculosis and malaria—and a newer entity, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

We have yet to develop efficient vaccines against any of them. According to USAID, in terms of absolute numbers of deaths, AIDS kills the most people each year, with 2.8 million AIDS-related deaths in 2004, followed by tuberculosis and malaria.

Indeed, AIDS and tuberculosis are often co-conspirators in death, as infection with the HIV virus makes people 20 to 30 times more likely to develop active TB with TB infection. Research for vaccines against HIV and malaria has been feverish but as-yet incompletely successful, one reason these diseases remain the top global killers.

But what about the deadliest disease in terms of how many of infected people die? In the absence of effective treatment, HIV might be one candidate. But the ones that come first to mind are the viruses that cause fast-moving hemorrhagic fevers, such as the Marburg or Ebola viruses.

The Marburg virus, named for the location of the first outbreak and a virus that may reside without symptoms in fruit bats, has caused death rates as high as 90% in some areas, although the average is 23–25%. It is a filovirus, in the same viral family as the five Ebola viruses. One of the Ebola viruses, Ebola-Reston, is perhaps the most notorious of the hemorrhagic fever viruses, having led to death rates as high as 89% in outbreaks.

A near-100% mortality rate is about as deadly as an infectious agent can be if that’s the measure of “deadly” we’re using.

By Emily Willingham

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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3 responses

26 04 2012
L George (@LLLGeorge)

Did you mean 20th century in your statement:
‘Spanish flu pandemic of the early 19th century’??

26 04 2012
Emily Willingham (@ejwillingham)

Yes, of course! Thanks so much for pointing that out.

12 12 2012
Brittany Ruff

If you are talking about fatality rates specific to humans, then the Ebola-Reston virus does not apply. It has been known to infect humans, but it does not cause disease. However, if you are speaking about the fatality rates of any disease in relation to any species, then yes, Ebola-Reston may be the most notorious, as it was made popular by the Non-Fiction novel “The Hot Zone”. Ebola-Zaire is the Ebolavirus with the most inclination to kill its host, as it has had an average terminology rate of 87% in the past 27 years or so.

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