Updated 13 May 2013

5 killer diseases

Here's more about five lurking viruses and bacteria that modern medicine hasn't conquered.

Here's more about five lurking viruses and bacteria that modern medicine hasn't conquered.

The Ebola virus

Named after the Ebola river in the Congo, this virus causes a complete meltdown of the bodily functions, resulting in an excruciatingly painful, haemorrhagic (bleeding) death.

Mortality rates are high, ranging from 50% - 90%. Ebola is so deadly, it’s been classified as a Category A Bioterrorism agent by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are a few species of Ebola, the most deadly of which is the Zaire Ebola virus. Mortality rates reach up to 90% in some epidemics, and there have been more outbreaks of this strain than any other.

In humans, Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with infected bodily fluids, or skin-on-skin contact, with an incubation period of between five and 10 days.

This haemorrhagic disease starts with a sudden onset of muscle pain, headache and fever, followed by the development of a rash that can cover the entire body in burning, itchy red lumps. The body darkens and becomes bruised. Some have described it as if the skin and flesh of the infected person is falling off the bones.

Soon after, compulsive vomiting and diarrhoea begins, accompanied by agonising chest and abdominal pains. These symptoms skyrocket out of control, leading to delirium, organ failure, jaundice and haemorrhaging. Fluids begin to leak from blood vessels and veins, and the body bleeds from every orifice. This dramatically drops blood pressure, and usually kills the patient within seven to 16 days.

Treatment: It’s highly unlikely, but with proper supportive treatment in a controlled environment, Ebola patients can recover. However, recovery times are extremely long, and inflammation and infection of the testicles, liver, spine, eyes and salivary glands are common.


The Hantavirus originated in the Four Corners of the US – where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico share a border. It was first recognised in 1993, when an outbreak occurred in this area, primarily among native Americans.

The virus is believed to be spread by mice and cotton rats, which disperse the virus in their urine, stools and saliva. From these bodily excretions, the virus becomes airborne and infects humans that inhale the virus. Fortunately, the disease cannot be spread from person to person, or from a blood transfusion.

Symptoms usually arrive one to six weeks after exposure, and the Hantavirus begins its reign of terror with bouts of fatigue, fever and intense muscle pains. Headaches, chills, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea can also occur during this time. Seven to 10 days later, it becomes very difficult to breathe. This is because the virus fills the lungs with fluid.

Treatment: With an early diagnosis, a couple of weeks in intensive care on an oxygen machine will usually lead to a full recovery, but leaving it too late will equal certain death.

Necrotising fasciitis

This bacterium turns flesh into liquid within a matter of hours. It can infect anyone at anytime through even a minor injury such as a paper cut.

In fact, you can become infected through a bruise, blister, cut or scrape. Some people have even been infected during surgery. This bug gorges itself on the subcutaneous level of your skin, destroying flesh and membrane, which ends up rotting off your body. It has been known to devour entire limbs, and massive sections of skin.

It’s also a notoriously difficult bacterium to detect, as many of its early symptoms resemble other common conditions. An unusual pain in the infected limb and flu-like symptoms could point to a possible infection.

The infected skin blackens, and begins to dry and crack and is covered by a breakout of large, puss-filled blisters. Toxins released by this killer bug send the body into shock, dramatically dropping blood pressure and eventually shutting the body down entirely.

Treatment: Surgically slicing out the infected flesh and strong antibiotics are the only things that currently fight the disease – unfortunately, the drugs usually aren’t strong enough. However, this infection is rare, and kills roughly 20% of those infected with it.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

CJD is the human strain, while "mad cow" is the animal strain.

CJD is a baffling disease. It is a spontaneous or acquired prion 'infection'. It is 100% fatal, but fortunately the chances of contracting it are one in a million. Some scientists believe that the disease has been around for more than 1 000 years, but what cannot be disputed is its deadly effect on the brain.

Exactly what CJD does to your brain isn’t known, but it seems to clump together rogue proteins called prions, which in turn drill tiny holes throughout your brain matter. The results are devastating, ranging from dementia, neurological damage, inhibited neuron function and eventually death. CJD can take up to 40 years to run its course, and there is no cure.

Treatment: The only way to tell if someone has CJD is to remove his/her brain and dissect it. Most cases are diagnosed too late – but even with early detection, there is no current treatment for the disease.

The Nipah virus

The Nipah virus originated from the Southeast Asian region with the same name. It appears to be a fairly new virus, which originated in bats, jumped to pigs and then eventually to humans. For those who are infected, the chances of survival are slim.

After a four-to-18 day incubation period, the virus induces flu-like symptoms, including powerful muscle aches and soaring fevers. Eventually, the virus causes the brain to swell abnormally causing devastating headaches, drowsiness, convulsions, disorientation, coma and eventually death.

Currently, the virus can only be contracted from animals, but scientists believe that it could make the jump to human-to-human transmission.

Treatment: Because of the rarity of this virus, little exists in the form of medicines. Rest and a cocktail of anti-inflammatory medications could help, and a strong immune system is probably the most powerful weapon against this virus.

No need to fear

Although your chances of picking up any of these viruses are statistically very small, it's still a good idea to take extreme care when travelling to regions that show existing levels of any of these diseases or viruses.



Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.