The Deadliest Infectious Diseases


MRSA - necrotizing fasciitis

MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus to give it its full name, is particularly scary as it renders modern medicine ineffective. The so called “Superbug” has the ability to plunge us straight back to the Dark Ages where peasants were afflicted with all manner of boils and hideous skin diseases! But MRSA is more than just a skin infection it has been known to kill within 24hrs.

There are a number of  strains of MRSA with some much more virulent than others(ST1:USA400 and ST8:USA300). But they all have one thing in common; they are resistant to a wide range of the most commonly used antibiotics that are available to mankind. In theory they should produce the same symptoms as a standard staph infection, and most of the time they do. However, not only are they not easily treatable, but in many cases appear much more pathogenic than their non-resistant relatives.

Conditions associated associated with MRSA include:

Necrotizing fasciitis  – a flesh eating condition affecting deeper layers of  the skin.
Toxic shock syndrome  – a systemic infection that can be fatal.
Necrotizing pneumonia – flesh eating infection of the lungs.
Osteomyelitis – a painful bone infection.
Sepsis – a potentially fatal infection of the bloodstream
Endocarditis – infection of the heart

MRSA can effectively eat your body with very few available antibiotics effective – and resistance growing. It seems that the antibiotic era is drawing to an end and much of this is down to people misusing and overusing them.

4. Rabies


Rabies is invariably fatal if not treated immediately after bite. If intervention only occurs after the symptoms start showing there is an 8% chance of survival. Worldwide rabies kills around 55,000 people, mostly in Africa and India, but it does still exist in the US and Europe.

Rabies first infects the central nervous system and ultimately causes disease in the brain leading to death. Symptoms include acute pain, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement/mania and hydrophobia. This is seen as panic when the patient is given liquids to drink even when thirsty and triggers excruciatingly painful spasms of the muscles in the throat. Perhaps the best known symptom though is the foaming at the mouth caused by the excessive production of saliva.

The incubation period for rabies varies greatly from a few days to several years. Unfortunately once symptoms begin death occurs within 2-10 days.
Rabies can be carried by any warm blooded animal,but in the vast majority of cases it is a bite from a dog that is the source.

3. Smallpox


Smallpox is possibly the most horrific looking of any disease. The classic symptom is the body being covered in pox, fluid filled pustules. This isn’t limited to the skin either they can occur in the mouth and throat. The disease has been around since 10,000 BC and was responsible for 300 million deaths since 1800 alone.

Whilst the mortality rate is only around one third most survivors suffer some scarring with other complications including blindness. The number of deaths is high though because smallpox is incredibly contagious.
The mortality rate depends on the course the disease takes. Of the four forms malignant and hemorrhagic smallpox are usually fatal. In hemorrhagic smallpox, most serious form, there is no blistering of the skin, instead there is bleeding under skin causing it to turn black. Given the name “black pox” this form would  kill in around 6 days.

The good news about smallpox is it has been officially eradicated. The world has been free of smallpox since 1976 with the last recorded case two-year old Rahima Banu in Bangladesh.

Of course the deadly potential of smallpox was recognised by the military. It was first used as a bioweapon by British as early as 1789 against Australian aborigines. Weaponized by Soviets during the Cold War it now only exists in laboratories. One worry is smallpox could potentially be re-engineered from digital viral genome and inserted into related pox virus.

2. Bubonic Plague

Bubonic Plague

If any disease can evoke pure terror then it is Bubonic Plague. Responsible for the Black Death which swept Europe in the middle ages killing an estimated 100 million people. There have been other plague epidemics including one in the 6th century which killed 50 million throughout the Roman Empire.

The plague is spread by a bacteria carried by rat fleas, unfortunately for them it kills them too. Symptoms occur within 2-5 days of a bite;  initially the lymph glands nearest the flea bite swell up like golf balls (buboes). Further symptoms include cramps, seizures and even vomiting blood. Acral gangrene at the extremities causing fingers, toes and noses to turn black are common and the skin may become very discoloured. This is where the name “Black Death” came from. In the latter stages there may be extreme pain caused by skin decaying on the living person.

Bubonic Plague (Yersinia pestis) still exists and sporadic cases occur even in the USA. There have been major outbreaks as recent as 1946 but nothing on the scale of the great plagues in history. The (relatively) good news is it can be effectively treated if antibiotics are given within 24hrs. Otherwise the mortality rate is in excess of 60% .

Naturally the military would not miss out on a chance to utilise something as terrifying as the plague. It is in fact one of the first ever biological weapons having been used in the 14th century. In this case diseased corpses were catapulted over the walls of besieged cities. The Japanese also used weaponized bubonic plague against the Chinese in World War II.

1. Ebola


Ebola is highly contagious with evidence that it can be spread via air. There is no treatment. There is no vaccine. Agonising death has been known to occur in excess of 90% of cases in some outbreaks. For these reasons the Ebola virus trumps any current disease to become the deadliest infectious disease on the planet.

Ebola is actually a group of viruses all of which are native to central Africa. The first reported cases in the mid-1970s appear to have been related to the local taste for bush meat, i.e. indigenous wildlife. One of the scary thing about Ebola is nobody is certain where it came from. And nobody knows for sure where it exists. It is assumed there is a natural reservoir of the virus within some animal population, but the species is unknown.

Infection with Ebola starts out with pain practically everywhere;  joints, muscles, abdominal cramps, headaches. Various rashes usually also appear. Ebola interferes with the blood’s clotting mechanism and bleeding may occur from every orifice.  Near inevitable death is usually caused by multiple organ failure and internal tissue necrosis.
Surprisingly, of those who do survive many make a complete recovery. It is worth noting though that the Ebola virus can be transmitted via semen up to 12 weeks after an infection.

In the post Cold War era no government has taken it upon themselves to try and turn Ebola into a weapon of war. But with its great potential to kill horribly it has been judged a category A bioterrorism agent.