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How historic deadly diseases are making a comeback

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Alex Henderson

Aston Business School graduate who has been the Managing Director of Henderson Biomedical since January 2015. Passionate about helping laboratories keep their vital equipment operational and compliant. Architecture enthusiast, fitness fanatic and dog lover!

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It is hard to believe that in our modern Western world, diseases that we thought were preventable are now making a comeback. This month, we take a look at some of the diseases and viruses that are making a comeback. 

The bubonic plague

Known as the ‘black death’ during the 14th century, it wiped out around 200 million people throughout Europe and Asia. The disease was carried by black rats and was transferred to humans via the bites of infected rodents. The bubonic plague caused victims to develop swollen lymph nodes and eventually pneumonia, which meant that it was passed to other humans by coughing and sneezing.

One might think that today, the so called ‘black death’ has been completely eradicated. However, in 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 783 cases of bubonic plague with 126 of these cases resulting in death. In the United States, there was 15 cases of bubonic plague reported in 2015 alone. It’s hardly a pandemic, but it is still quite unbelievable given that many of us thought that this disease was consigned to the history books.

Nevertheless, there are only a very small number of people that have been unfortunate enough to contract the bubonic plague. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that the number of cases is on the rise.

Scarlett fever, scurvy and cholera

However, the same can’t be said for scarlet fever, scurvy and cholera. Certainly, in the developed world, we tend to think these diseases in the same way as the bubonic plague- they only existed in the past and have little relevance in today’s society. However, what people do not realise is that over the past 5 years in England, hospital admissions for scurvy has increased by 38%, scarlet fever by 136% and cholera by a massive 300%. Evidence shows that although the number of cases of these diseases are very small, they are also very much on the rise


Malnutrition is also on the rise too. According to the NHS Digital, patient admissions to hospitals across the country have risen from 4,883 in 2011 to 5,409 the following year. In 2013, this figure had risen again to 5,810 and by 2014 it had increased to 7,145. By 2015, the number was 7,366. In England alone, the number of cases of malnutrition have increased by 51% over the past 5 years according to NHS England.


Gout is a form of arthritis that leads to severe inflammation of the joints, commonly the toes of the victim. The condition is linked to the overindulgence in rich foods and alcohol which lead to it being coined the ‘disease of the kings’. It has largely been contained in recent decades thanks to improvements in medicine and it can be easily treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids. However, in the past five years, we have seen cases of gout rise by over 60%. Today, over 100,000 people are affected by the disease.

Reasons for the rise

So what are the reasons for these rises? Well, in some cases, it is due to the fact that fewer people are having vaccinations. Furthermore, there are increasing numbers of people being pushed towards the poverty line where these diseases flourish. There is also an ageing population and it is the elderly who are more frail and weak than others and so are more likely to contract these sorts of diseases.

However, for some diseases, it is the vaccine itself that is the problem. For example, there has been a resurgence of whooping cough in the past few years. Back in 1976, there were little over 1000 cases reported in the United States. By 2014, this figure had rocketed up to nearly 29,000. The reason? In the 1980s, there were concerns raised about the side effects of the vaccine. This led to the development of a new vaccine which became widely available in 1992. This vaccine had fewer side effects but it only offered temporary immunity, so in 2005, doctors were recommending children over the age of 12 were given a booster shot. Of course, this booster shot was forgotten about which led to a large number of people becoming sick.

In the case of gout, experts believe that the reason it is on the rise is due to increased levels of obesity. Shockingly, in 2017, two thirds of adults in the UK are considered ‘overweight’. Furthermore, these people are also consuming more alcohol and eating more junk food than ever before. Today, gout affects both the rich and the poor and is not just a disease for kings.

In summary, although many of these diseases are on the rise, it is fair to say that they still represent a very small percentage of the population. It is hardly a pandemic but it is true that experts and medical professionals will have to keep a close eye on numbers. If people don’t change their lifestyle and take the necessary vaccinations, then we could see the number of cases rise. This would increase pressure on a healthy service which is already straining.

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