6 Dangerous Diseases Hiding in U.S. Backyards


♩ Microbes are invisible, so it’s easy to
forget that they’re all around us, all thetime. They’re in everything we eat and drink,
and on every surface that we touch. A lot of microbes don’t hurt us, but there
are some that really can. And even deadly pathogens are closer than
you might expect: lurking in tiny rodents, or a tacky decorative
fountain. Right here in the United States, there are
a surprising amount of diseases hiding in your own backyard. Here are 6 of them. Chances are you’ve heard of the black death,
a plague of such epic proportions that it killed a third of Europe’s population. But what you might not know is that Yersinia
pestis, the bacterium that caused the
plague, is far from gone. Adorable furry animals and their fleas carry
Y. pestis bacteria, basically everywhere west of Texas in the continental United States. And this bacteria can infect humans and inject
our cells with deadly toxins, starting with our immune systems. In bubonic plague, the bacteria multiply in
lymph nodes, making them swollen and painful. This comes with fever, headache, and weakness. Once the infection gets into the bloodstream,
it becomes septicemic plague. And if it migrates to the lungs, that’s
pneumonic plague. Now, it’s hard to know how many critters
are carrying this ancient terror. But scientists often use coyotes as a sentinel
species. Like the classic canary in the coal mine,
sentinel species help predict risks to humans, serving as an early warning of potential danger. Coyotes are scavengers that eat lots of small
mammals, both living and dead, which are
common carriers of the plague. So testing them is at least helpful, even
if the data’s not perfect. A massive study took blood samples from over
17,000 coyotes from 2005 to 2009, and found that about 10% tested positive for exposure
to plague. Coyotes that had been infected were found
in virtually every state west of the 100th meridian, which runs through the middle of
North Dakota and Texas. That seems pretty widespread. But luckily, human cases of the plague are
pretty rare. According to the CDC, there have been an average
of 7 per year in the U.S. And since 1970, all but one reported case
occurred in the West. Because Y. pestis is a dangerous neighbor,
infection control programs target susceptible species like prairie dogs. To protect them, scientists engineered an
oral vaccine out of a harmless virus by tacking on Y. pestis antigens — pieces of the bacterium
that immune cells use to recognize the disease and fight back. Researchers added the vaccine to treats flavored
like sweet potatoes or peanut butter, which were a huge hit with wild prairie dogs in
test runs in Colorado and Utah. So hopefully these cheap and efficient medicinal
snacks will help protect more prairie dogs and nearby humans in the future Small rodents can also carry another ominous
disease, called the Sin Nombre virus, or SNV. It was first discovered in 1993 after a cluster
of mysterious deaths in relatively young, healthy people in the Four Corners region
— where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet. The virus was originally called the Four Corners
Virus, but residents objected and it was renamed the Sin Nombre Virus. Which, funnily enough, means “the nameless
virus”. Although scientists had known about Hantaviruses
in other countries for many years, SNV was the first of several so-called New World Hantaviruses
we discovered. The early symptoms of infection could be mistaken
for the flu – fever, chills, and muscle aches. But as the disease progresses, it affects
the lungs, so patients drown in their own fluids. It’s not entirely clear what causes this
effect. But researchers think that the virus may send
the body’s immune cells into overdrive in the lungs, causing inflammation that damages
the tissues. Hantavirus infection is relatively rare – on
average, 30 people a year are infected in the U.S. But it’s quite deadly, killing 35-50% of
its victims. We don’t have a vaccine yet, so supportive
care is all doctors can do. Cases of SNV have been reported from coast
to coast, and it’s mostly carried by the deer mouse, a creature that even the CDC calls
“deceptively cute.” Deer mice live pretty much everywhere in North
America, although they seem to be especially virus-laden west of the Mississippi river. For example, a study of nearly 2,000 deer
mice in California found that about 12% had antibodies against SNV, indicating that they
had been exposed to the disease. But they don’t have obvious symptoms of
sickness, and we can get SNV just by breathing in dust contaminated with their infected poop. Fortunately, as far as we know, SNV doesn’t
seem to spread from person to person. So just be a little wary of wild mice, and
you should be fine. Plague bacteria and the Sin Nombre virus are
often found in remote locations like big national parks where small, furry critters thrive. But nearly half of Americans who got tularemia
between 2001 and 2010 lived in urban counties. And it’s not confined to western states,
either: cases have been reported everywhere except Hawaii. Tularemia is caused by a bacterium called
Francisella tularensis. This disease is pretty rare, with only 200
to 300 cases a year in the U.S. But it’s incredibly dangerous. Inhaling as few as 10 microbes is enough to
cause a full-blown infection. And depending on the way the bacteria gets
into your body, the symptoms are different. The bacteria trick their way into human cells,
then go wild, multiply, and kill them. And they can attack any combination of the
skin, lymph glands, eyes, throat, or lungs. So it’s often misdiagnosed, which is bad
news. Tularemia only responds to a few antibiotics,
so misdiagnosis can lead to improper
treatment, and more risk of death. Mortality rates are between 2-24%. F. tularensis bacteria can be transmitted
by ticks and deer flies, but Americans have also caught tularemia from pet cats and hamsters. In an outbreak of tularemia in Martha’s
Vineyard in 2000, mowing the lawn was even linked to the disease. Probably because they were chopping up dead,
infected rodents with the grass. Even though there is a vaccine for tularemia,
it’s only partially effective for now. Researchers are working on it. In the meantime, you can avoid the disease
with some common sense: watch out for ticks, and don’t handle wild animals. And maybe this is a good excuse to put off
mowing your lawn. Hypochondriacs beware: you don’t even have
to leave your apartment to get Legionnaires’ disease. Cases were reported in every state in 2016. Legionnaires’ is caused by Legionella bacteria,
which usually lives in lakes and streams. But occasionally this bacteria can get into
man-made water systems, growing out of control in cooling towers, fountains, and plumbing
systems. They thrive even without many nutrients, and
can form slimy clusters called biofilms that help them resist disinfectants. This lets them grow better than other bacteria
in man-made systems. From there, the bacteria can become airborne
in tiny water droplets, which can spell disaster for unlucky humans that inhale them. Legionella takes hold in lung cells, multiplying
and killing them, which causes fevers, difficulty breathing, lung failure, and even death 5-25%
of the time. Legionella is especially problematic in places
like hospitals. When people are already sick, their immune
systems can’t fight back as well, and there are higher mortality rates. Oddly, Legionnaires’ disease seems to be
on the rise in the United States. Rates of the disease have increased more than
400% since 2000, reaching over 6,000
cases in 2016. But the CDC stresses that this might be because
of more awareness and reporting. Despite our best efforts, Legionella keeps
popping up in unexpected places, including decorative fountains, grocery store produce
misters, hot tubs, and even potting soil. Thankfully, many cases of Legionnaires’
disease respond to antibiotic treatments, and there have been some efforts to develop
a vaccine. So just, like, make sure hot tubs are properly
chlorinated before you soak. Cysticercosis is a parasitic infection that’s
caused by swallowing tapeworm eggs. The eggs hatch in your small intestine, and
then burrow their way into other organs, where they camp out and form cysts. The severity of this infection can vary a
lot. Cysts in muscle tissue may cause no symptoms,
or just a slightly sore lump. But they can also form in the eyes, brain,
and spinal cord, which can be debilitating or deadly. Between 2003 and 2012, there were over 18,000
hospitalizations in 42 states for cysts in the brain, called neurocysticercosis. Most were reported in California and Texas. However, it’s hard to tell how many people
got infected in the state where hospitalization happened, or even the United States in general. It can take months or even years after ingesting
tapeworm eggs before any symptoms develop. Thankfully, cysticercosis seems to have a
relatively low mortality rate. One study found that from 1990 to 2002, there
were only 221 deaths. And, oddly, in many cases the cysts go away
on their own. Which is good news, because they’re tricky
to treat. There are drugs that can help destroy cysts,
but the inflammatory response from that can be worse than the symptoms. Brain surgery to remove them is also risky. So mostly, washing your hands is a simple
and important way to protect yourself. The final disease on this list is the most
rare – there were only 34 cases reported in the U.S. between 2008 and 2017. But it’s also the most dangerous, with a
mortality rate of 97%. The critter to blame is the brain-eating amoeba,
also called Naegleria fowleri. This amoeba likes to live in warm freshwater,
and infection occurs when swimmers get water up their noses. The amoeba wiggles its way to the brain and
releases molecules that destroy brain cells and cause severe swelling. This usually deadly infection is called primary
amoebic meningoencephalitis. Because N. fowleri infection is rare, some
people had assumed that the amoeba was fairly rare in the environment. But that doesn’t actually seem to be true. Originally, we thought it thrived in southern
states, with reports of disease from California to Florida. But more recently, there have been cases as
far north as Minnesota. Plus, researchers have found the amoeba in
recreational lakes in Arizona and reservoirs in Texas… and even treated water systems
in Louisiana. In fact, since 2008, four people have died
in the U.S. because of contaminated tap water. The biggest mystery is why hundreds of people
can swim in an infected lake and stay totally healthy, while one unlucky person will contract
the illness. So it’s hard to know what to do to stay
safe, because treatment options are scarce. There’s only one antimicrobial that may
help infected patients. The CDC recommends using boiled or distilled
water for nasal rinses, and limiting how much water goes up your nose while swimming in
freshwater. Or, you know, just head to the ocean! N. fowleri can’t survive in salt water. Although these diseases are definitely scary,
they’re all pretty rare. Like, if it’s any comfort, you’re much
more likely to die from lightning than from the plague. But knowing what’s out there, we could all
be a little more careful. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which is produced by Complexly! If you want to learn more about the complex
things that can affect human health in the United States, check out our sister channel
Healthcare Triage at youtube.com/healthcaretriage. ♩

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Reader Comments

  1. John Summers

    Ywwwwwaaaaaahhhhhhhh….. I'm 1000% in love with Olivia….. She's objectively beautiful but her brain is by far, her most attractive trait.

  2. Gordon Marshall

    I'm going to douse my backyard with every petrochemical known to man and sterilize the earth. No little microbes are going to get me!😉

  3. Jim Brewer

    The pork tapeworm is by far the most common of the brain infecting parasites the problem is that if the infection doesn't kill you (which it almost always does) the inflammatory response to the anti parasitic medication just might.

  4. Hipp

    There was an infestation of brain eating amoebas in Lake Ponchartrain outside of New Orleans a few years ago. Family and friends used to swim in the lake all the time too.

  5. edgeeffect

    Those 7 cases a year can have one hell of a boast when they get fit… "yeah boss, sorry I was off work but I had… … … BLACK DEATH! … … … but I'm better now."

  6. checkmate

    That stupid piece of hardware hanging out of your nose really bugs me. I saw a guy once who got his ears pierced. One of them got severely infected, and he looked like he had a giant strawberry hanging from his ear… just sayin'.

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