5 Infections That Once Killed Millions

5 Infections Which Once Killed Lots of People

Like all explorers, medical researchers train their sights on future accomplishments.  However, thanks to the hard work of countless others, medicine has come a long way.  Sometimes, it's good to take stock of disease and infection that we've treated in our perpetual march toward cures.

Here are 5 infections which once uniformly killed countless people.

Infection #1: Appendicitis

The appendix is a 4-inch structure which hangs off the large intestine.  We're unsure what exactly the appendix does, but you can surely live without it.  Physicians normally never fret about the appendix unless in cases of appendicitis when it becomes inflamed and infected.  In cases of infection, an appendectomy is performed wherein the appendix is resected or removed surgically (most commonly via laparoscopy). 

Before modern surgery, countless people died of appendicitis, which affects about 9 percent of men and 11 percent of women during their lifetimes. Appendicitis is particularly deadly when the appendix ruptures and seeps infection into the peritoneum, a process called peritonitis.

Infection #2: Peritonitis

The peritoneum is a membrane which lines the abdominal cavity. The peritoneum can become inflamed and infected, a condition called peritonitis.

Primary peritonitis occurs when there's no identifiable source of infection. Secondary peritonitis occurs when a gut structure--like the appendix--perforates or the peritoneum is bridged by something like a dialysis catheter.

Although pertitonitis once killed many more people, it's still pretty deadly with more than 40 percent of elderly and people with compromised immune systems dying of the disease.  Nowadays, people with peritonitis are treated with supportive care (correction of electrolyte or body salt abnormalities, restoration of fluid volumes), antibiotics for infection and surgery to correct any peritoneal perforation.

Infection #3: Central Nervous System (Meningitis & Encephalitis)

Nothing is more scary than an infection of your brain and spinal cord and before the advent of modern medicine, more people died of such disease. Meningitis is inflammation and infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Encephalitis is inflammation and infection of the brain tissue itself.

The key to treating central nervous infections like meningitis and encephalitis is early detection and medication. Both meningitis and encephalitis are medical emergencies which can be caused by viruses or bacteria. Consequently, people with such infection are first started on empirical antibiotic treatment (hit with various antibiotics) and acyclovir (a herpes antiviral medication). Treatment is focused once results of CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) culture come back from the lab.

Infection #4: Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs--specifically the lung parenchyma, a term which refers the lung's architecture. Despite effective antibiotic treatment which saves lives, many people with pneumonia are still misdiagnosed.

Classification of pneumonia has shifted during the past several years. Nowadays, pneumonia can be broadly classified as community acquired or healthcare associated. Depending on the source of the infection (community setting versus healthcare setting), antibiotic treatment varies.

Infection #5: Sepsis

Sepsis or blood poisoning sets off a deadly inflammation and blood clotting (coagulation) cascade in your body. Sepsis can have a variety of causes including wound infection.  Severe sepsis compromises organ function.

Although sepsis has been killing people ever since the beginning of time, it was only recognized as a separate clinical entity beginning in the 1970s.

Today sepsis is treated with supportive care and antibiotics.

5 Infections Which Once Killed Untold Millions

In addition to better treatments for these 5 deadly infections, vaccines help prevent pneumonia, meningitis, and other infections not listed in this slide show. Remember that prevention is always better than cure. In other words, it's best to never get an infection than have to treat one.

Selected Sources

Han J, Cribbs SK, Martin GS. Sepsis, Severe Sepsis, and Septic Shock. In: Hall JB, Schmidt GA, Kress JP. eds. Principles of Critical Care, 4e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015. Accessed May 07, 2015.

Jacobs DO. Acute Appendicitis and Peritonitis. In: Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015. Accessed May 07, 2015.

Mandell LA, Wunderink R. Chapter 257. Pneumonia. In: Longo DL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012. Accessed May 07, 2015.

Owens CD, Rapp JH, Gasper WJ, Johnson MD. Blood Vessel & Lymphatic Disorders. In: Papadakis MA, McPhee SJ, Rabow MW. eds. Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment 2015. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2014.  Accessed May 07, 2015.

Roos KL, Tyler KL. Chapter 381. Meningitis, Encephalitis, Brain Abscess, and Empyema. In: Longo DL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012. Accessed May 07, 2015.

Trier JS. Chapter 20. Intestinal Malabsorption. In: Greenberger NJ, Blumberg RS, Burakoff R. eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Gastroenterology, Hepatology, & Endoscopy, 2e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012. Accessed May 09, 2015.

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