Infectious diseases are always in the news. Evaluate your risk of catching one.
How susceptible are you to an infectious disease? That depends on many factors, such as where you live, your age, your general health and your lifestyle. In tropical climates, for instance, certain diseases — such as malaria and cholera — are constantly present (endemic). In other parts of the world, these diseases pose little or no threat at all.
You should always take measures to minimize your risk of infection. Start by evaluating which infectious diseases pose a risk to you.
Infectious diseases in the news
Infectious diseases have made a splash in the news in recent years. Monkeypox, SARS and West Nile virus have all gotten their fair share of media attention. However, if you live in the United States, your risk of catching one of these headline-grabbing emerging infectious diseases is relatively low.
- Monkeypox. An outbreak of 71 suspected cases of the disease in the Midwest in 2003 prompted an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Only half of those cases were confirmed by the CDC as monkeypox. Given the small number of cases and the fact that all reported cases of the disease were in people who handled infected animals — mainly prairie dogs — your risk of contracting monkeypox is somewhere between low and nonexistent.
- SARS. At its peak, the number of SARS cases worldwide climbed to over 8,000. For about 10 percent of those people, the disease was fatal. However, in the United States, only 27 cases — and no deaths — were reported. Infection happens only after close contact with someone who has the disease. Coupled with increasing evidence that the disease appears to be under control, your risk of developing SARS also is very low.
- West Nile virus. Of the 2,470 cases of West Nile virus infection reported in the United States in 2004, 88 people died. Compared with the annual mortality rate of influenza — which is about 36,000 — your risk of dying of West Nile virus remains relatively low. However, experts predict this disease will continue to spread throughout the country in years to come. Since the disease spreads through mosquitoes, you can protect yourself by using insect repellent and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants when you're outside during peak mosquito hours.
Infectious diseases: Everyday hazards pose greater threat
Of greater threat than infectious diseases you might learn about in the news are those disease-causing organisms lurking in your immediate vicinity. You're more likely to get sick from contaminated surfaces in your home — such as in the kitchen or bathroom — than to acquire a serious illness from a mosquito. And the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States is far greater than the incidence of monkeypox, SARS and West Nile virus combined. Consider these examples:
- Food-borne illness. Salmonellosis, caused by salmonella bacteria in contaminated foods, is an illness that can leave you feeling miserable with diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. More than 44,000 cases of salmonella infection were reported in the United States in 2002. But the CDC estimates that the actual number of salmonella illnesses in a year might be 30 times greater because the majority of cases go unreported. Pay careful attention to food preparation — such as making sure eggs and poultry are thoroughly cooked — to reduce your risk of salmonella infection.
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Often the initial symptoms of STDs can be mild, and people who are infected might not even realize it. An estimated 2.8 million cases of chlamydia occur each year in the United States, but most of these cases go unrecognized and unreported because people aren't aware they have the infection. More than 700,000 people are infected with gonorrhea each year, and nearly a million Americans are living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
In addition, an estimated 45 million Americans over age 12 have been infected with herpes simplex virus, which is the primary cause of genital herpes. And as many as 20 million Americans are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) — a group of viruses that cause cervical cancer. HPV may be inactive or silent in most people, causing no symptoms, but it can still be transmitted sexually to others and eventually cause great harm.
Safe sex practices — such as using condoms consistently and correctly and getting screened for STDs — can help keep the spread of all these diseases under control.
- Influenza (flu). Each flu season an estimated 5 percent to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the disease and of these, more than 200,000 people require hospitalization for flu-related complications, according to the CDC. On average, about 36,000 Americans die each year of influenza or its complications. Getting vaccinated every year provides a high degree of protection for you and your family.
How to minimize your risk of infectious diseases
Vigilance and a little common sense go a long way in keeping you protected against most infectious diseases. These basic precautions can help, too:
- Immunizations. Get appropriate vaccinations. Have your kids vaccinated, too. Vaccines are safe and effective, and they're your best defense against many infectious diseases.
- Good hygiene. Wash your hands often, especially after using the toilet and when preparing food. Clean and disinfect the hot zones in your home — the kitchen and bathroom — on a regular basis.
- Common sense. Steer clear of behavior that puts you at greater risk. For example, don't handle an animal that looks ill or appears to have an infection. Avoid sharing a drinking glass or utensils with someone who's sick. And avoid sexual contact or use condoms if you're unsure of your partner's sexual history.
- Awareness. Stay up-to-date on the infectious diseases that might have the greatest impact in your geographic area. Knowing the warning signs and detecting a disease in its early stages could mean the difference between life and death.
Keep health risks in perspective
Despite the risks that infectious diseases can pose, catching an infectious disease may not be the biggest threat to your health. If you're a smoker or you're overweight, your risk of health complications probably outweighs your risk of an infectious disease. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States — approximately 440,000 people die prematurely each year due to cigarette smoking.
Being overweight or obese increases your chance of getting heart disease and diabetes, and it may make certain conditions such as high blood pressure and arthritis more severe. The number of overweight Americans continues to rise — as many as 65 percent of adults are considered overweight.
When evaluating your risk of catching an infectious disease, keep all of your health risks in perspective. Be aware of your chances of actually contracting an infectious disease and know what diseases are most prevalent where you live. You can allay many of your fears by taking appropriate steps to minimize your risk.
Last Updated: 07/28/2005