Almost 100 Canadians die annually in a fall involving a bed, while some 250 others perish after tumbling from or on steps. There are many more common ways to leave this life than succumbing to rare, exotic illnesses. So why do they terrify people so much?
Are they scary? Yes. Are you going to die from one? Statistically unlikely.
SARS: The previously unknown respiratory syndrome started in China in November 2002 and hit the world in March of the following year, spreading to 28 countries within weeks. Outside of Asia, Toronto was particularly hard hit. Its hospitals were made off-limits to most visitors, and more than 10,000 people were quarantined. As the number of cases climbed, fear took hold-restaurants emptied and conventions were cancelled. Tourists were non-existent. The World Health Organization imposed an advisory against non-essential travel to Toronto. So did the U.S. In Canada, 251 people were diagnosed and 43 of them (17 per cent) died, compared with a worldwide rate of 8,096 cases and 774 deaths (9.6 per cent). SARS hasn’t reappeared in the general population.
WEST NILE VIRUS: When SARS hit Toronto, J.Lo’s production Shall We Dance? was relocated to Winnipeg, just in time for mosquito sea-
son and West Nile. Spread by those pesky insects, it had arrived on the continent in 1999, and in Canada in 2002. Heavily publicized campaigns warned of the virus, cities sprayed fo r mosquitoes, and bug spray flew off the shelves. Yet only about one in 150 infected people gets serious complications, which include permanent brain damage and death. In 2003, there were 1,478 reported cases and 12 deaths in Canada. Cooler temperatures in 2004 cut the stats to 25 cases and 2 deaths. So far there have been 128 cases this year, with eight deaths. EBOLA AND MARBURG HEMORRHAGIC FEVERS: With horrific symptoms and death rates reaching beyond 90 per cent, the viral diseases are terrifying. In Angola, 329 people have died in a Marburg outbreak since last year, with only 45 patients surviving. Marburg was first detected in a German lab handling monkeys in 1967, while Ebola hit the radar in 1976. Since 1998, the average annual number of cases for both fevers has been just 135. Part of the fascination with the diseases is that their natural reservoirs have never
been found.Both pop up in remote parts of Africa, kill quickly and then, with their high fatality rate, die out.
ANTHRAX: It has been around for centuries, and it’s tough-spores can
live in nature for decades. Humans usually get it from infected animals and recover if treated promptly with antibiotics. Western cases have been extremely rare since Louis Pasteur came up with an animal vaccine in 1881. Today the worry is weaponized anthrax. In 1979, spores accidentally released from a Soviet lab killed 68. And then there was the 2001 panic in the U.S. caused by a series of anthrax-laden letters. Politicians, slow to react to the initial cases, went into overdrive when Sen. Tom Daschle received a letter. Soon 10,000 people were on antibiotics as postal facilities and other buildings closed for decontamination. In the end, five people died and another 17 fell ill. In Canada, citing a public health emergency, the feds tried to override Bayer’s patent on the drug Cipro by getting a generic maker to quickly
produce a batch. It was a costly fiasco. No cases were reported here. VARIANT CREUTZFELDT-JAKOB DISEASE: The fatal human equivalent of mad cow disease, which had been ravaging the British beef industry since 1986, was first described in 1996. Cattle had been infected with deadly mad cow through contaminated feed. With a cull of 800,000 infected and older animals, plus new feed rules, the agricultural crisis was contained. But beef consumption plummeted, and export bans were imposed. When Canada reported in 2003 the first
of its three mad cow cases, world markets slammed shut. Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob can take years to become apparent as it slowly eats away at the brain.
So far only 150 Brits have died, as have another 10 around the globe, including one Canadian.
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