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What’s the scariest disease? September 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here to ask you all a question I was just wondering about: What’s today’s scariest disease?

As a history buff, I’m familiar with most of the scary diseases of the past: the black plague, aka the Black Death; leprosy; diphtheria; smallpox; tuberculosis; Spanish flu; cholera; typhoid fever; polio; bubonic plague; syphilis. Of course, all these diseases would be plenty scary if they were rampaging everywhere today, as the continuing flu scares remind us. But fortunately, most of them remain under such good control that they’ve become a part of history rather than a present threat. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of many Third World countries, where diseases like cholera still kill.)

What I was wondering was which of today’s dreaded diseases most people considered scariest. I’m not asking which one is the worst, but which is the one that’s most likely to give people nightmares: the most frightening, the horror movie of diseases. Is it cancer, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s? Or maybe HIV/AIDS, mad cow disease, West Nile disease, Ebola virus, malaria, avian flu, emphysema? Is there a top candidate based on its symptoms, or do we simply fear most the disease we think we’re most likely to get? (Cancer runs in my family, so it is the disease, or I should say, disease group, I most fear, while my grandfather was terrified of getting Alzheimer’s like a disproportionate number of his numerous siblings; mercifully, his fears proved ungrounded.) What do you think?

By now you may be wondering what put such a morbid topic in my mind to begin with. Was it reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel? Was it all you bloggers out there already getting excited about Hallowe’en and posting scary-cute photos of jack o’lanterns and other decorations?

Well, no. It was, believe it or not, finding a really great parody T-shirt about the plague. It’s a takeoff of the tour T-shirts rock groups sell at their tour stops. The front shows a giant rat with the words “Black Death: European Tour 1347-1351,” and the back shows a list of all the “tour stops.” Much as I love the shirt, it did start my mind wandering down this path. I wonder what the Londoners of Shakespeare’s day would think if they were transported to our world: no plagues, no typhoid fever, no smallpox, no syphilis, but instead rampant cancer, heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s. Most of their diseases were spread by crowding, ignorance of the causes and treatment of disease, vermin, and grossly unsanitary conditions. What’s spreading ours?

Now that I think of it, that may be the scariest question of all!



1. Melva - September 23, 2008

I’m not sure it’s the scariest, but E-Coli is horrible. The symptoms are flu-like. A lot of people get E-Coli but don’t even realize it. Then others get so sick they have to be hospitalized. And there are some who die. My mother had always been healthy until she got E-Coli (probably from chicken she prepared for dinner). She was hospitalized, recovered, and went home. Months later she was still weak and for the first time she looked old. And a few months after that my sister called to say that Mom had died. What is scary is that a person might not realize how sick they are until it’s really bad.

Oh, no, Melva! What a sad story. I’m so sorry! And thanks for the warning about E. coli. I had no idea it was that bad!

2. Shibaguyz - September 24, 2008

I think the scariest diseases are the ones that have been perpetuated by our own tampering with the natural systems of nature in one way or another. Diseases that either jump species or are created because we have changed the very process by which our food is produced.

Then, of course, for those of us of a slightly more suspicious nature, there are those diseases that either started or spread because of our government’s resistance/reluctance/refusal to act quickly enough to stop the spread or fund proper research to stop the spread.

Good points, guyz!

3. mr_subjunctive - September 24, 2008

What’s spreading our diseases is mostly that we aren’t dying from the others. Cancer’s a minor thing in a world where everybody gets TB. Alzheimer’s is maybe scary, but only in a country where everybody’s healthy enough to expect to see 70 years old could Alzheimer’s ever be a problem. So they’re kind of high-class problems to have, however scary they might be.

Personally? I don’t exactly worry about any of them, not yet, but I expect cancer’s the one that will take me down. Given the chance to rule some of them out, though, I’d spare myself Alzheimer’s and mad cow before bothering with cancer — degenerative brain diseases are terrifying to me. My brain may not be much, but it’s home, you know?

My feeling’s just the opposite, Mr. S., doubtless reflecting how selfish I am. If I got Alzheimer’s, I wouldn’t know what bad shape I was in, whereas if I got cancer, I’d be terrified…

4. Curmudgeon - September 24, 2008

I remember first reading about the Ebola virus outbreaks taking place in what was then Zaire–late 70s?–and being really really scared. I was pretty young and impressionable. Today I’d have to say that cancer is what I find scariest–doesn’t run in my family but still gives me nightmares.. I agree with your take on dementia, Richard. A few days ago an elderly woman with a walker found her way into my classroom. She was disoriented and exhausted and didn’t know how to get back to her home. It turned out she’d been wandering around the building for over 3 hours! When we finally tracked down her family they were hysterical–she’d gone missing for over 6 hours. Meanwhile the elderly woman just wanted to sit and get something to drink. She wasn’t phased at all. She seemed thrilled to have found her way to a group of people who wanted to chat with her. Dementia definitely seems to take a biggger toll on the families than on the people who have it–at least in the earlier stages. Defintiely don’t mean to downplay the severity–types like CJD are definitely the stuff of nightmares.

Interesting story! And yes, if memory serves, Ebola was causing all kinds of hysteria when it first registered on Western radar, much like West Nile when it hit a few years back.

5. linda - September 25, 2008

The antibiotic-resistant stuff, the super bugs – they scare me, along with the stuff we’ve caused by tampering with the environment.

The prevalence of food poisoning is pretty scary to me, after personally experiencing the ravages of it. I escaped with my life, but between the food poisoning and Cipro that was used to treat it, I’m now living with the gift that keeps on giving in the form of chronic, incurable digestive disease. Major dietary changes, probiotics, and digestive enzymes allow me to enjoy a certain quality of life, whereas none of the medications I’ve tried have done anything more than make me sicker. I’ve refused steroids, the last option short of life-altering surgery to remove parts I’m not prepared to live without, and that’s about all the traditional medical establishment has left to offer me.

Alzheimer’s is pretty scary too. As oblivious as I might be, that’s something I wouldn’t want my family to have to face. As for me I’d prefer to keep my mental faculties and personality intact. As hard as it might be to know I was dying, I’d rather die from something that enables me to still know myself and those closest to me.

Gack, Linda! How horrifying re: food poisoning. I am so sorry!!! I too am very concerned about our reckless overuse of antibiotics and the resulting superbugs that now can devastate us. I think a future generation (if we’re lucky enough to endure) will look back on our era and be as shocked by the barbarity of our so-called “modern” medical practices as we are looking back at the Elizabethans.

6. bob - June 5, 2009

I used to be so afraid of CJD that i stopped eating every type of beef and steak. I also freaked out about leukemia, ALS, tape worms, and small pox. I think ALS is commonly overlooked.

I agree, Bob! Not to mention fun stuff like tetanus and rabies.

7. golder - November 5, 2009

fatal familial insomnia. No cure, you take about a year to die, and never sleep the whole time. I’d be most afraid of this disease.

I’ve read about this one, too, but never really understood it, as in, when does it strike and what causes it? But I guess if they knew what caused it, they could work towards a cure!

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