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Rev Infect Dis. 1991 Jul-Aug;13(4):658-65.

Plagues--what's past is present: thoughts on the origin and history of new infectious diseases.

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Medical Service, Tucson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Arizona 85723.


Medical science has made tremendous strides in overcoming infectious diseases in the 20th century. Despite this, several epidemics of previously unrecognized diseases have occurred during the last 15 years. These diseases include Lyme disease, Legionnaires' disease, toxic shock syndrome, and AIDS. Examination of past epidemics, including the plague of Athens, the black death, syphilis, and influenza, suggests that the sudden occurrence of diseases that were previously unrecognized is not unusual. Analysis of the new infectious disease indicates that while all four appeared suddenly, isolated cases of the disease occurred before the actual epidemic. Further, all four new diseases were found to be due to agents or toxins that were not previously recognized. Epidemics due to new infectious diseases may arise by several mechanisms, including mutation of the pathogen to a virulent form and introduction of an infectious agent into a nonimmune population. Environmental and behavioral factors may play an important role, as illustrated by toxic shock syndrome, Legionnaires' disease, and AIDS. On the other hand, epidemic diseases tend to abate over time because of changes in the infecting pathogen and in the host. Hence, epidemics can be seen as cycles; new diseases will arise periodically, occasionally with a devastating outcome. With time the effects of these diseases on the population will ameliorate. The cycle will begin again when a new disease emerges.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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