Five Diseases That Freaked Us Out Like Zika but Eventually Went Away

Zika is here, and it isn't going away just yet. The virus is spread by infected mosquitoes and seems to pose the largest threat to pregnant women because it has been known to cause birth defects. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people infected with Zika have cold-like symptoms and then recover without any further complications. 

Still, the fear has been very real. Wynwood has become a sort of ground zero for the virus in Florida, and many residents have expressed frustration over the government either not doing enough or overdoing it by spraying areas with insecticide. 

In all, 28 cases of people infected with Zika in South Florida have been confirmed, and the number will likely climb in the coming weeks. 

The concerns over Zika are legit. Still, if recent history has anything to teach us, it's that the virus will be here until it's not, and then another disease will take over the headlines. From mad cow disease to Ebola, there have been some scary ailments to worry about over the past decade. Yet those diseases never ended up being the monsters we thought they would be. That isn't to say we should take Zika lightly or not take precautions or not demand our government do more to protect us. But let's hope it'll wind up just another one of those diseases that will fail to live up to our greatest fears.

So to assuage everyone's concerns, here are five diseases that freaked us out but ended up not being the Armageddon most of us thought they'd be:

Mad Cow Disease
The disease known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy — or mad cow — made headlines in the 1990s after more than 400 cows in Britain were found to have it. The disease eventually killed 140 people who had eaten tainted meat in the UK. As with most diseases, mad cow was largely misunderstood at the outset. So when one cow was found to have the disease in the United States, people naturally freaked. The government promised that one infected cow was nothing to be concerned about, and even if mad cow had snuck into the country, the animals’ parts that made people sick in Britain hadn’t been sold in American grocery stores for years. In the end, only four cases of mad-cow-related deaths were reported, and the disease never spread widely as most had feared. The CDC still tests cattle for mad cow disease and says the risk of people being infected by it remains low.

Bird Flu
The mid-1990s saw birds and poultry in China fall ill to a nasty form of the flu known as H5N1, or avian flu. At first, the disease made its way into the poultry shops of Hong Kong, which eventually infected 18 people and killed six. Then, in 2003, the bird flu spread to other parts of Asia and made its way to Russia, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Africa, and India. Over time, millions of birds died, and hundreds of humans became infected. Bird flu soon caught the attention of the American media and population at large. To this day, bird flu can be detected in some American poultry from time to time, but as was the case just this past January, the virus continues to be controlled and poses little threat to humans.

Swine Flu
The strain called H1N1, also known as swine flu, squealed onto the scene in 2009 and caused a frenzy. As its name suggests, the virus spread from infected pigs to humans. According to the CDC, some 59 million Americans contracted swine flu, with 265,000 being hospitalized. Though 12,000 people died from swine flu complications, it never became the monumental pandemic many feared it would. Despite the many people who died, most infected with swine flu end up with only mild symptoms such as the sniffles and fever. Though H1N1 is still out there, seasonal vaccines for the common flu nowadays include one for swine flu.

Like Zika, the chikungunya virus is spread through mosquito bites and first emerged in the Caribbean in 2014. The Pan American Health Organization reported 4,732 cases throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America during that time. The virus then made its way stateside, where it infected some 480 people in 41 states, including Florida. Most of the cases seemed to have come from people who had traveled outside the U.S., particularly to the Caribbean. Yet even with these statistics, most experts agree that chikungunya is tough to detect, which suggests there may have been even more people infected but who never reported it because of its mild symptoms. The virus itself infects the joints, causing pain and fever. Still, only about 32 people in the U.S. have died from complications caused by chikungunya. The virus still exists, but most experts say the best way to prevent infection is to use common-sense practices such as using mosquito repellent, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, and draining standing water. 

Twenty fourteen was the year of Ebola, an exotic, frightening, and oftentimes misunderstood disease that originated in Africa. Ebola ended up in the U.S. that year, and it all began when several Americans who had helped treat patients infected with Ebola in Africa began testing positive for the disease. Some of those infected were either missionaries or journalists who had traveled to high-risk areas such as Nigeria. The disease slowly spread to others who had been in contact with these people, including a nurse who helped treat one American victim. News and subsequent fear of Ebola in America spread when it was learned that a doctor who had been treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and tested positive for the disease died at a Nebraska hospital. Little by little, reports of Americans testing positive for Ebola began to spread, as did fears that an outbreak was imminent. There were even calls to suspend flights to and from Africa and to take stricter measures with incoming immigrants. What most people didn’t know was that Ebola is not an airborne pathogen; the disease is spread through bodily fluids or passed on to those who do not take the necessary protective measures. In other words, it's not easy to get infected. Ebola didn't cause the end of America as we know it, and at least one health expert has said the risk to the public remains “as zero as you can get.”  
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Joseph