July 6, 1885: 10 Horrible Diseases (Really Bad Ways to Die!)

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A Brief History

On July 6, 1885, French scientist Louis Pasteur tested his vaccine against Rabies on a boy that had been bitten by a rabid dog. Joseph Meister successfully resisted the deadly disease which prior to the Pasteur vaccine was a death sentence for anyone that contracted Rabies. Today we commemorate this great advance in the science of medicine by listing 10 diseases that either kill you or leave their victims in a horrible, debilitating state. What diseases would you add to this list? (Note: The Rabies vaccine does not cure Rabies, it prevents the onset of the disease.) if you are a praying person, perhaps praying for a cure for each of these terrible diseases would be in order. Otherwise, perhaps a donation to an appropriate charity to eradicate or address the disease would be a decent idea. Studying these horrible, horrible diseases might spur some people to action. We hope you and yours never experience the devastation described below.

Digging Deeper

1. Rabies.

There is no cure for Rabies. If you get the disease, you die and die horribly. The vaccine invented by Louis Pasteur is given if you are bitten or scratched by an animal suspected of having Rabies to prevent you from getting the terrible malady. Many animals are possible carriers of the Rabies virus, so any bite or scratch by any sort of critter (other than a pet known to have been inoculated for Rabies) is a possible source of infection. The saliva of affected people or animals is also a possible source of infection, so even handling a sick animal may expose a person to the dread disease. Rabies kills over 17,000 people each year, the vast majority of which reside in Africa or Asia. About half the people in the world live in areas where Rabies occurs. First aid for an animal bite or scratch should include vigorous washing of the wound with soap and water for 15 minutes followed by application of topical anti-biotic. People bitten or scratched by suspected Rabies carriers must be given the vaccine as soon as possible, for once symptoms develop it is too late. Only 6 people in history are believed to have survived Rabies, some of whom were treated by the “Milwaukee protocol,” a course of treatment that includes placing the patient in an induced coma and pouring intravenous anti-viral drugs into the victim. This treatment is not believed to be effective. Rabies is considered a virtually certain sentence of death. Victims suffer fever and headache followed by increasingly severe symptoms such as terrible aches, paralysis, fear of water, inability to swallow, confusion, agitation, terror, hallucinations, paranoia and of course, death. Severe thirst coupled with an inability to swallow leading to gagging is a hallmark of the onset of Rabies. Video of human victims is available on the internet, but we must warn you: Watching the progress of Rabies in human patients is sad and disturbing.

2. Leprosy.

Leprosy is an insidious, slow developing bacterial disease that may take 5 to 20 years to show symptoms. The disease is spread from human to human through coughing or perhaps through mucous from the nose. A legendary disease in which affected people were historically routinely cast out of society to live in “leper colonies” and called “unclean,” the term “leper” means a person that is unwanted and unfit for socializing with other people such as a pariah or outcast. Aside from the physical problems of slowly rotting away, perhaps going blind in the process, the social rejection is one of the cruelest results of the disease. Modern medicine can treat and even cure leprosy today with aggressive antibiotic drug regimens, reducing the human toll from about 5.2 million chronic patients at any given time in the 1980’s to less than 200,000 world-wide by 2012. An estimated 16 million people have been cured of this epic disease in the past 2 decades, a fantastic improvement over the historical devastation of leprosy. Sadly, some places in Africa and Asia still isolate people with leprosy from the rest of society in the infamous “leper colonies.” Only about 200 cases of leprosy are diagnosed in the United States each year, but over a half million new cases arise world-wide each year. Aside from degeneration of connective tissue and cartilage, nerve damage occurs so that the sense of touch (pain) is muted or gone, resulting in lepers often injuring themselves unknowingly. Fingers and toes become misshapen and shortened, skin turns color and looks horrible. Secondary infections often develop, sometimes causing loss of body tissue. No wonder people have feared this terrible affliction through the ages.

3. Flesh eating bacteria.

Actually called Necrotizing Fasciitis (or “Flesh-eating Disease”), this sort of infection is in the Gangrene family of bad things to contract. (The author of this article got Gangrene after being in a coma following emergency surgery for an Aorta aneurism that had burst. With blackened fingers and toes, doctors said amputations were in order, but luckily his wife refused, and the Gangrene dried up and although the author lost finger nails and toenails, which grew back, and hands and feet shed their skin, all the fingers and toes were saved. A really, really, lucky event.) Victims of flesh eating bacteria are treated with normal oral and intravenous antibiotics, and locally applied antibiotic solutions, without success. Sometimes “maggot therapy” is tried, where live maggots are placed on infected flesh and the little buggers eat only the infected parts, leaving a clean wound. Sometimes these therapies work, and often they do not. Amputations are often the only way to stop the spread of the deadly infection, and in some cases those amputations have to be followed up by more extensive amputations. Victims are left missing one or more limbs and can have faces more hideous than horror movies if the infection is in that area. The evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria is largely to blame for the increase in incidents of Necrotizing Fasciitis. Treatment often includes a battery of several antibiotic drugs, as the disease is usually found to involve more than one different bacterium type. Incidence of Necrotizing Fasciitis is about .4 to 1.0 case per 100,000 people annually. The abdomen and groin areas are most frequently attacked, and major causative factors include poor hygiene, inadequate wound care, and complications caused by weakened immune systems (including diabetes and obesity). Rich and famous people are not strangers to this disfiguring, crippling, and possibly lethal disease, as scientists, sports team owners and politicians have all been numbered among its victims. Another related malady is Cancrum Oris, a flesh eating type of Gangrene that attacks the face.

4. Mad Cow Disease.

Our guess is we would be mad if people made hamburgers and steaks out of us, but that is not the type of madness we are discussing! The fatal brain infection known as Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is caused by a prion (a “misfolded” protein) that is ingested by a person or cow eating contaminated body products from an infected animal. Although found in other body parts, the prions at the core of the problem are usually concentrated in brain and nerve tissues. The practice of feeding cattle ground up pieces parts of other cows (slaughterhouse scraps) including brains and spinal tissue infects other cattle, rapidly spreading the disease. When a contaminated cow is slaughtered and fed to humans, the people can get the deadly brain destroying disease. Early symptoms such as lameness or lack of balance by the infected cattle may go unnoticed, or at least it did until the disease became widespread and highly publicized. The disease was known many centuries ago, but of course not the cause. Only in the late 20th Century did scientists figure out what was happening, with an epidemic of infected cattle that led to the eradication of over 4 million head of cattle in Britain alone during the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s. There is still no cure for this horribly frightening disease that turns the brain into a sponge-like blob, leaving the victim progressively weaker and unable to perform normal functions, until death comes. Disease prevention methods are to avoid feeding animal scraps to animals raised as food. Many countries require special methods of disposing of brain, spinal, nerve and eye tissue from slaughtered animals. A similar disease affects deer and deer like animals in North America called Chronic Wasting Disease, and the human equivalent is called Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. After contamination by the deadly prions, it may take more than a year or 2 to register symptoms. Once symptoms manifest death follows within a year. There is no cure and no treatment. (By the way, the idiotic practice of eating raw squirrel brains is an American tradition among squirrel hunters that should NEVER be practiced. This practice cost the life of a distant family member of the author.)

5. Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva.

Often abbreviated as FOP, this nightmare disease is a condition where the victim’s body repairs injuries by turning soft tissue and connective tissue into bony tissue. When any muscle, ligament or tendon is injured, the body “repairs” the damage by turning the affected part into bone. The result is joints that no longer work, eventually crippling the victim and twisting the body of the victim in horrible ways. Attempts to remove excess bony tissue surgically just results in even more bony tissue being grown at the location affected! This is truly a nightmarish scenario. People affected with this malady often have a deformed big toe, and usually some symptoms are apparent before the age of 10. The usual progression of affected areas starts in the head/neck region and works its way down the body. Bony lumps and growths begin to appear, and the victim loses mobility and the loss of use of his/her limbs. As with many truly horrendous diseases, FOP has no treatment and no cure. Victims are doomed to live in agony and discomfort. Another disease not as severe as FOP is fibrous dysplasia that adversely affects the bones and bone marrow. FOP is a rare disease and is often misdiagnosed at first. Early diagnosis is critical so that the victim can be protected as much as possible from any trauma that leads to the formation of bony growths. Proteus Syndrome, another disease in which uncontrolled growth of tissue occurs is well known to the public as the condition suffered by John Merrick, famously known as “The Elephant Man.”

6. Filariasis.

If you ever watch the television series, Monsters Inside Me, you will be horrified to see how many and how varied the number and types of parasites can afflict human beings. Travel to exotic places may well be off your bucket list once you watch a few of those episodes! One scary form of parasitic infection is Filariasis, the introduction of tiny worms (Nematodes) into the victim by being bitten by mosquitoes or other biting flies. In fact, there are about 8 different species of these creepy worms that cause Filariasis, the condition in which the larva of the worms makes itself at home in our bodies. The results? Depending on the variety of miserable little parasite the victim could get Elephantiasis tropica (massive swelling of body parts leading to lack of mobility and death affecting about 120 million Africans and Asians) or River Blindness (caused by the eyeballs getting eaten from the inside by the growing worms after they are introduced to the body through biting flies). Around a million and half people have River Blindness, more than half of which are blind, almost all victims in Sub-Saharan Africa. Vaccines have not yet been developed, so people in affected areas are advised to avoid being bitten by flying insects. (Good luck with that!) Treatment with anti-parasitic drugs may slow the progression of symptoms.

7. Brain Eating Amoebas.

Naegleria fowleri, to you binomial nomenclature inclined readers, these creepy germs live in warm water and are introduced into the human body through the nose when the victim is swimming, usually in a hot springs or warm summer pond or lake waters (fresh water only). Warm water industrial runoff may also be a breeding ground for the amoebas. How warm? Up to 113 degrees, but usually at least around 90 degrees (Fahrenheit). Thus, the fatal infections usually occur in the Southern United States, although there have been cases in the Northernmost parts of the country (Minnesota) as well. These evil little monsters are only about as wide as a third the thickness of a human hair, but once inhaled into the sinuses they eat away at the victim’s brain, like zombies! The amoebas travel to the brain via the olfactory nerve. Along with swimming in affected waters and allowing water to go up the nose, another way the amoebas are introduced into the nasal cavity is through the use of a Neti Pot when the water used to rinse the sinuses is untreated well water or tap water. Most victims are males of teenage or less, although anyone is susceptible to suffering almost sure death if infected. Symptoms appear in as little as 2 days, or as long as a week after introduction. Death can come within a few days of symptoms showing. Unless swimming in a heavily chlorinated swimming pool, it is advisable to wear nose clips while swimming. People using a Neti Pot need to use sterile water only. We are sad to say that the Naegleria Amoebas are found extensively across the US, although they were first reported in Australia in 1964. Apparently people can tolerate a small number of the amoebas through the action of a healthy immune system, but a weakened immune system or introduction of large numbers of amoebas at once may overwhelm the immune system. Even with aggressive and early anti-fungal or anti-parasitic treatment the death rate for a Naegleria infection is 95%. Symptoms may be similar to Mad Cow Disease, with increasingly problematic brain function, impaired vision, balance, thinking, sight, smell, taste, speech, eating and feeling, possibly with pain, hallucinations and other brain related problems.

8. Penile cancer.

Cancer in any form is to be feared and loathed. Actually many different diseases under the umbrella nomenclature of “cancer,” the specific problem of penile cancer is particularly scary to men. Usually found in men over 55 years old, treatment may consist of minor surgery to remove a small affected area or total amputation of penile tissue and adjacent lymph nodes as the spreading of the cancer is life threatening. Did you even know there was such a thing? Sorry about giving you one more thing to worry about! At least there are some preventative measure that can reduce the risk of contracting this highly upsetting disease. The first and easiest measure is DO NOT USE TOBACCO in any form. Tobacco users are 1.6 to 6 times more susceptible to contracting penile cancer than people that do not use the filthy weed. Other measures include being circumcised, practicing good hygiene (keeping clean and washed down there, including pulling back the foreskin to clean out smegma on a regular basis) and engaging only in protected “safe” sex. The reason for the last preventative method is because HIV, HPV and genital warts are all risk factors that increase the likelihood of contracting the disease. (As if AIDS, Herpes and Genital Warts were not incentive enough!) The 5 year survival rate for all stages of penile cancer is only 50%, so there is more at stake than just your little buddy.

9. Gigantism.

Also called Giantism, this situation differs from Acromegaly which is an adult onset disease that occurs after the bony plates have stopped growth. Caused by hormonal problems usually induced by brain tumors on or near the Pituitary Gland, the overproduction of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) or insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I), not always attributable to tumors. Genetic markers have not yet been identified, so predicting who may have the problem of unlimited growth is difficult or impossible to identify. While we may be somewhat envious of those huge football players and skyscraping basketball players that make the big bucks because of their size, Gigantism is no good deal. People so afflicted usually suffer joint problems and short, difficult lives. The strain of being gigantic on the heart and skeleton is generally debilitating, the giants so affected often ending up as cripples. Treatment can include drugs to limit the production of IGF or HGH and surgery to remove tumors, but the drugs are not always effective and the tumors are not always operable. If you are not already a professional basketball player, think for a moment how terrible an experience flying in an airliner would be if you are 7 feet tall or taller! Beds, shoes and clothes have to be custom made, and life is a constant struggle, even without the health problems. The flip side of this terrible problem is Dwarfism which has a slew of its own downsides.

10. ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

More specifically known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, this insidious disease is what killed the smartest man on Earth, Stephen Hawking. Lou Gehrig was a Hall of Fame teammate of Babe Ruth with the New York Yankees and was called “The Iron Man” because of his seeming indestructibility in playing a record amount of games in a row. He died at the age of 37 only a couple years after showing symptoms of ALS, decreasing muscle size and function, weakness, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and finally inability to breathe. Most cases occur among victims of 60 years old or so, with an average life span of only 3 to 4 years after the first symptoms manifest themselves. Most cases are triggered by unknown means, with about 5% to 10% of cases believed to be inherited from one’s parents. There is no cure for the terrible disease, and drug treatment only extends life by a few months. Assisted breathing devices may also prolong life. Otherwise, the patient suffocates when breathing becomes too difficult to continue. Along with physical symptoms such as lack of motor skills and ability, cognitive function also suffers in many cases mimicking brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease (another horrible disease we hope we never suffer!), dementia, or the brain diseases listed above. Victims of ALS may die helpless, unable to move, eat, drink, talk, or even breathe.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Arnold, Nick. Horrible Science: Deadly Diseases. Scholastic, 2008.

Van De Graaff, Kent. Survey of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases. William C Brown, 1996.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.