The world's 7 most terrifying diseases

Nobody wants to catch an illness on their travels, but especially not one of these afflictions. Here's what you need to know about the world's scariest diseases, and how best to avoid them on the road...

5 mins

1. Ebola

What is Ebola? Once in your body, the Ebola virus attacks the cells that line blood vessels, causing internal organs throughout the body, from the intestines to the kidneys to the brain, to ooze blood. Once it reaches the lungs, sufferers drown in their own blood.

Where is it found? Ebola first emerged in 1976 in Zaire and Sudan, and recent research suggests that it originated from fruit bats. From 2013 to 2016, West Africa experienced the biggest Ebola outbreak in history, with Liberia and Sierra Leone the worst affected.

As of 2 March 2020, the UK Foreign Office does not have any travel warnings in place for either Liberia or Sierra Leone, except to see their travel advice before travelling.

2. Kuru disease

What is Kuru disease? Kuru is caused by cannibalism - specifically by a protein found in the human brain. It is known as the laughing sickness, as one of the first symptoms is pathological bursts of laughter from the afflicted. The loss of emotional control is swiftly followed by a lack of physical control. Sufferers will shake uncontrollably, and completely lose control over their movements. 

Where is it found? Transmissions have only been reported among members of the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea, where some villagers would ceremonially consume their loved ones at funerals. The word Kuru comes from the Fore tribe, and translates to ‘trembling’.

The disease is incredibly rare, and it is now believed there have been no cases for over 10 years. Researchers at Curtin University in Australia, who monitored the disease for decades, reported the last Kuru sufferer died in 2009 and declared three years later that they believed the epidemic to be over.

3. Naegleria fowleri

What is Naegleria fowleri? Also known as ‘the brain-eating amoeba’, Naegleria fowleri is a microbe that typically lives in warm lakes, springs and pools. It enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until eventually, the sufferer dies.

Where is it found? It's mostly found in the tropics and hot climates, though in 2013, several cases were reported in the United States of America, including a 12-year-old girl in Arkansas.

From 2009 to 2018, there have only been 34 cases reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection.

4. Guinea worm disease

What is Guinea worm disease? This disease is a parasitic infection caused by a type of roundworm and typically begins when you drink stagnant water contaminated with its larvae.

One year after infection, painful blisters will form on arms and legs, before bursting to expose a small worm. The worm can survive in subcutaneous tissue for years and can only be removed by winding it laboriously around a stick and withdrawing it bit by bit each day.

It is, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), rarely fatal, though sickness does linger for months to years, often leaving patients bed-ridden.

Where is it found? Guinea worm disease is found throughout certain parts of Africa, with cases reported in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and the Ivory Coast.

Making sure that your drinking water has come from a safe source is the best way to prevent infection. WHO further categories the best ways to protect yourself from the disease.

5. African trypanosomiasis

What is African trypanosomiasis? Also known as the sleeping sickness, this parasitic disease is caused by the bite of a tsetse fly. Once infected, victims become confused and stumble about. They keep falling asleep, even while standing.

As the disease progresses, the sleep becomes longer, stretching into a coma, then death. Detected early enough, the disease can be treated with drugs.

Where is it found? There are two types of the disease, both of which present slightly differently. Which one is contracted really depends on the type of parasite the victim has been bitten by.

The most common, Trypanosoma brucei gambiense, can be contracted in 24 countries in Central and West Africa. Less than 2% of cases are caused by Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense, a parasite found in 13 eastern and southern African countries.

Cases of African trypanosomiasis have decreased rapidly in the last 10 years.10,000 cases were reported in 2009, dropping to 997 new cases by 2018. WHO reports that the last big epidemic lasted from the 1970s to 1990s, and overall cases have dropped by 95% since 2000.

6. River blindness

What is river blindness? Transmitted by bites from infected blackfly, a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus infects the body and causes severe rashes, intense itching, and eye lesions which can lead to blindness. 

Where is it found? River blindness is most common in remote African villages near fast-moving streams or rivers. There have been few cases in Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula, and in six Latin American countries.

The good news is that it's not easy for casual travellers to catch as it takes more than one insect bite for the illness to develop.

7. Buruli ulcers

What are Buruli ulcers? Beginning with a seemingly harmless swelling on an arm or leg, the Buruli bacteria destroys healthy tissue and causes debilitating ulcers, which in turn leads to restricted joint movement.

It comes from the same family of bacteria that causes leprosy and tuberculosis. Often, it will have to be removed by surgery. Fortunately, if caught early enough, it's easy to treat properly with antibiotics, which were introduced in 2005.

Where is it found? 85% of Buruli ulcer cases are found in Benin, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and Cameroon. That said, they aren't the only places. The disease has been found in 33 countries, as of 2017, across Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and the Western Pacific.

And... coronavirus?

Unsurprisingly, many travellers are concerned about or even frightened by the recent outbreak of coronavirus. Indeed, it may well be what brought you to this article.

What is coronavirus? COVID-19 is an illness caused by the coronavirus, which causes respiratory problems. Symptoms usually begin presenting with a high fever or temperature, followed by coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Some people may only experience a mild form of COVID-19, exhibiting cold-like symptoms like a chesty cough or even a runny nose. (It's worth noting that if you have these symptoms, that doesn't necessarily mean you have coronavirus).

In the most severe cases, the virus can cause difficulty breathing and ultimately result in organ failure, though this is only in the most extreme cases. Often, fatal cases of COVID-19 occur in older patients, or sufferers who have an existing health condition.

Where is it found? As of 2 March 2020, COVID-19 is currently present on every continent on Earth, except for Antarctica. It is expected to hit 90,000 cases worldwide in the near future.

The outbreak began in China, where the UK Foreign Office currently advises against travelling, though reports suggest that the numbers of new cases in China are starting to slow down. Outbreaks continue to spread through Iran, South Korea, northern Italy, and many other countries around the world. There have been 40 cases confirmed in the UK.

If you're due to travel to an affected area, seek guidance from the UK Foreign Office, your tour operator and your travel insurance provider before travelling. The NHS currently advises travellers to the above countries and many Asian countries to seek medical advice on their return by calling their country's coronavirus hotline.

And anyone who fears they may have caught COVID-19 is advised to contact their doctor by telephone, and self-isolate for up to two weeks if instructed by a medical professional.

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