Obscure Diseases Take a Toll on America’s Poorest

By Eliza Strickland | June 25, 2008 11:07 am

dengue fever signCysticercosis. Brucellosis. Dengue Fever. The names of these diseases are not familiar to most Americans, and they’re so obscure that U.S. doctors often don’t think to check for them. But a new analysis shows that these infectious diseases, which are usually associated with developing countries in the tropics, are surprisingly common in the poorer areas of the United States.

Peter Hotez, the report’s author, says the diseases go untreated in hundreds of thousands of poor people who live mainly in inner cities, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and the Mexican borderlands…. Hotez says it is a “disgrace” that diseases causing so much suffering remain at the bottom of the national health agenda. “If this were occurring among white mothers in the suburbs, you’d hear a tremendous outcry,” says Hotez, a microbiologist at George Washington University [USA Today].

The report, published in the Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases, lists 24 “neglected infections of poverty,” many of which are a result of poor sanitation or inadequate healthcare. Among the diseases on the list are cysticercosis, a pork tapeworm that can cause seizures and permanent epilepsy; brucellosis, a bacteria found in unsanitary milk products; and dengue fever, a viral infection common in South Asia. Hotez estimates that the 24 diseases affect at least 300,000 Americans, and maybe millions.

The uncertainty about the prevalence of these rare diseases stems from the lack of attention they’ve received from the medical community, Hotez says. For example, nearly every hospital screens infants for the genetic disease phenylketonuria, but only two states require screening for toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection passed from mother to child at birth. Both diseases cause mental retardation. Toxoplasmosis affects 10 times as many newborns as phenylketonuria does, but toxoplasmosis is mostly limited to inner cities and poor Southern areas [Los Angeles Times].

Image: flickr/jurvetson

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