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If you're a germaphobe, make sure you're sitting down.

Posted by Stuart Rose on

Back in 1999, a woman in California cleaned up rodent droppings in her home. Two weeks later, her liver started failing. Then she started to bleed internally — a hemorrhagic fever that would kill her. Eventually doctors found a new virus in her body, which very likely came from a rat.

A few years later, a man in Arizona went to the hospital. The skin on his legs was infected and dying. Doctors had to amputate. His diagnosis? A new kind of leprosy.

Over in the Midwest, the problem has been new tick-borne diseases, some deadly. And in New England, doctors are dealing with a disease that causes Lyme-like symptoms but is caused by a different bacteria.

The pattern (see map) continues across the country and across the world. A spike in new infectious diseases is the new normal.

They used a few tricks to take into account the fact that over time, doctors and scientists have developed better tools for identifying pathogens.

But still, the studies found a surge in diseases. Old diseases that we thought were gone — like the plague — are returning. New diseases are spreading into new regions. And more dangerous strains of old diseases are cropping up more frequently. (Not to mention the rise in drug-resistant versions.)

The only trend that looks reassuring is that the number of cases in outbreaks per person has declined over the past few decades, researchers at Brown University reported in 2014.

So the big question is: Why? Why is this era of new diseases happening now?

Many scientists say we, humans, are to blame for this new disease era. That we're responsible for turning harmless animal viruses into dangerous human viruses.

What Causes Pandemics? We Do.

I will discuss this in my next blog.


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