Natural born killers

27 Aug 2014

With one-in-two people dying within days of becoming ill, it’s little wonder that Ebola causes panic. But the real threat can only be assessed if we understand the history of the virus and how it is transmitted

In 1980, the year I started my clinical studies, the World Health Organization announced that smallpox, one of the most dread infections in human history, had been eradicated. The new antibiotics and vaccines developed in the decades following the second world war had gone some way towards neutralising community fear of infectious diseases, and the success of the smallpox campaign reinforced the growing belief that the Age of Infections was coming to an end. From the 1960s on, Australian parents no longer had to face the terror of a polio epidemic; scarlet fever was rare, diphtheria was gone and tetanus going; even the diseases that were thought to be inevitable in childhood — measles, mumps and rubella — were disappearing. Cancer and heart disease were emerging as the big killers: forget about germs, it was our lifestyles that needed to change. This was, of course, a premature claim of Mission Accomplished…

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