Introduction to Diseases and Disorders

People have illness and physicians diagnose and treat disease. Disease is an objective term which implies a malfunctioning of the body or part of the body. Disease is pathological and is diagnosed on the basis of recognizable signs and symptoms. Illness is the subjective experience of pain, discomfort or disorder. Although it is mostly safe to say that illness is the subjective experience of disease, it is possible to experience illness without having a disease and it is possible to have a disease and not feel ill.

Devastating pathogen-borne diseases and plagues, both viral and bacterial in nature, have affected humans since the beginning of human history. The true cause of these diseases was not understood at the time, and some people thought that diseases were a spiritual punishment. Over time, people came to realize that staying apart from afflicted persons, and disposing of the corpses and personal belongings of victims of illness, reduced their own chances of getting sick.

Epidemiologists study how diseases affect a population. An epidemic is a disease that occurs in an unusually high number of individuals in a population at the same time. A pandemic is a widespread, usually worldwide, epidemic. An endemic disease is a disease that is constantly present, usually at low incidence, in a population.

Emerging and Re-emerging Diseases

The distribution of a particular disease is dynamic. Therefore, changes in the environment, the pathogen, or the host population can dramatically impact the spread of a disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) an emerging disease (Figure) is one that has appeared in a population for the first time, or that may have existed previously but is rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range. This definition also includes re-emerging diseases that were previously under control. Approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are zoonotic diseases, zoonoses, diseases that primarily infect animals and are transmitted to humans; some are of viral origin and some are of bacterial origin. Brucellosis is an example of a prokaryotic zoonosis that is re-emerging in some regions, and necrotizing fasciitis (commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria) has been increasing in virulence for the last 80 years for unknown reasons.

Emerging or re-emerging bacterial diseases are shown on a world map. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is emerging in North America, Europe, and Asia. Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli O157:H7 are emerging in North America and East Asia. Lyme disease is spreading in North America. Cholera is emerging in Africa and South America. Diptheria and typhoid fever are re-emerging in Asia.
The map shows regions where bacterial diseases are emerging or reemerging. (credit: modification of work by NIH)

Some of the present emerging diseases are not actually new, but are diseases that were catastrophic in the past (Figure). They devastated populations and became dormant for a while, just to come back, sometimes more virulent than before, as was the case with bubonic plague. Other diseases, like tuberculosis, were never eradicated but were under control in some regions of the world until coming back, mostly in urban centers with high concentrations of immunocompromised people. The WHO has identified certain diseases whose worldwide re-emergence should be monitored. Among these are two viral diseases (dengue fever and yellow fever), and three bacterial diseases (diphtheria, cholera, and bubonic plague). The war against infectious diseases has no foreseeable end.

Part A shows the red, bullseye-shaped rash of a person infected with Borrelia. Part B shows a micrograph of Borrelia, which look like tiny corkscrews. Part C shows the life cycle of the bacteria, which begins when Borrelia infect a tick egg. The egg hatches into larva, which feeds on a mouse, then into a nymph, which also feeds on a mouse. The nymph feeds again, this time on a deer, or sometimes a human.
Lyme disease often, but not always, results in (a) a characteristic bullseye rash. The disease is caused by a (b) Gram-negative spirochete bacterium of the genus Borrelia. The bacteria (c) infect ticks, which in turns infect mice. Deer are the preferred secondary host, but the ticks also may feed on humans. Untreated, the disease causes chronic disorders in the nervous system, eyes, joints, and heart. The disease is named after Lyme, Connecticut, where an outbreak occurred in 1995 and has subsequently spread. The disease is not new, however. Genetic evidence suggests that Ă–tzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in the Alps, was infected with Borrelia. (credit a: James Gathany, CDC; credit b: CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Section Summary

Devastating diseases and plagues have been among us since early times. There are records about microbial diseases as far back as 3000 B.C. Infectious diseases remain among the leading causes of death worldwide. Emerging diseases are those rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range. They can be new or re-emerging diseases (previously under control). Many emerging diseases affecting humans, such as brucellosis, are zoonoses. The WHO has identified a group of diseases whose re-emergence should be monitored: Those caused by bacteria include bubonic plague, diphtheria, and cholera.

Biofilms are considered responsible for diseases such as bacterial infections in patients with cystic fibrosis, Legionnaires’ disease, and otitis media. They produce dental plaque; colonize catheters, prostheses, transcutaneous, and orthopedic devices; and infect contact lenses, open wounds, and burned tissue. Biofilms also produce foodborne diseases because they colonize the surfaces of food and food-processing equipment. Biofilms are resistant to most of the methods used to control microbial growth. The excessive use of antibiotics has resulted in a major global problem, since resistant forms of bacteria have been selected over time. A very dangerous strain, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), has wreaked havoc recently. Foodborne diseases result from the consumption of contaminated food, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites that contaminate food.