January 17, 1996
Web posted at: 7:00 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Jeff Levine
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Doctors were once confident they had infectious diseases under control, but new data shows the potential killers are surging back.
Harmon Underwood's encounter with infectious disease started with an inconspicuous insect bite last April. Within hours he was fighting for his life against an aggressive form of strep bacteria that literally eats away at its victims.
The surgeon could barely keep up with the raging infection. "It was eating my flesh so bad, when they put me under, he had to go in front of it and catch it," Underwood says. "He was getting very discouraged, because as fast as he was cutting, it was traveling."
Speedy diagnosis and treatment spared Underwood from almost certain death, although he later suffered a stroke, apparently unrelated.
But researchers fear that others who encounter microbial infections may not be so lucky. "Infectious diseases haven't gone away or even subsided lately. They have increased as a cause of death in recent years, after decades of decline," says Dr. Robert Pinner at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a 12-year study of death certificates, the rate of those dying from infectious disease in the United States climbed 58 percent. Even after adjusting for age variations in the population, the increase is almost 40 percent.
Such infections killed 166,000 Americans in 1992.
While the AIDS epidemic accounted for the biggest chunk of the increase, it is by no means the whole story. The findings are part of a global effort by the journal of the American Medical Association to draw attention to the issue.
Infectious disease has climbed ominously to the third leading cause of death in the United States. "We don't know whether these eruptions will occur tomorrow, or in 10 years, or in 20 or 30, but the scene is set for any number of new outbreaks," says Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University.
Experts blame the resurgence on a variety of factors, including inadequate resources for public health and a shortage of new antibiotics to combat drug resistant bugs.
Global warming could even have the chilling consequence of allowing disease-bearing mosquitoes to fly north. "In the context of accelerated changes in climate trends, our concern is that these diseases will spread into new areas (and become) more intensified," says Dr. Jonathan Patz at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
During the last few decades, the big emphasis in public health has been on combating heart disease and cancer. But for the future, experts say more resources should be aimed at tracking deadly bugs and learning more about these infections and why they are so resilient.
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