9 Terrifying Diseases That Could Kill You… Right Now

Flesh-eating bacteria? Cholera? The bubonic plague?! A look at the world’s scariest new outbreaks.

AP Photo

AP Photo

Hypochondriacs, beware. From flesh-eating bacteria to deadly mosquito bites to … the bubonic plague (!), this summer, headlines have been reporting enough mysterious and potentially deadly diseases to turn even the most brave among us housebound—or at least into intense germaphobes. We survey some of the scariest and oddest new diseases afflicting the world right now.

DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite / AP Photo

Hanta Virus

As if anyone needed another reason to dislike rats. One of this summer’s most alarming outbreaks is the Hanta virus, which plagued hikers and campers who stayed in a certain area of California’s Yosemite National Park. The rodent-borne disease is transmitted (disgustingly) through urine and droppings; carriers can become infected by merely sweeping or kicking up dust that contains virus-laden particles. The illness begins with flu-like symptoms, but after six weeks of incubation can cause rapid acute respiratory and organ failure. Not scary enough? There’s no specific treatment, vaccine, or effective antiviral drug, and more than 36 percent of those who contract the disease die. In the Yosemite outbreak, six people have contracted the disease, and two have died. About 10,000 people who stayed in the area may have been exposed to the virus, including people from 39 countries. The one silver lining: it’s not contagious person-to-person.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

West Nile

You’re excused for your paranoia over mosquito bites. After all, the U.S. is enduring its worst West Nile virus outbreak ever. At least 87 people have died from the mosquito-borne disease and nearly 2,000 were infected with it this year, the most people diagnosed since cases of the illness were first documented in 1999. Hardest hit is Texas, which accounts for almost half of the cases and deaths. West Nile is spread when “humanity’s greatest nemesis” contract the disease by feeding on infected birds and then bite humans. Symptoms of minor bouts with West Nile include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, and rashes. But more serious cases can cause high fevers, disorientation, convulsions, possible coma or paralysis, and death. The spike in the virus this year is being blamed on—what else—the weather, as high temperatures and heavy regional rainfall this summer has led to a mosquito population boom. There’s no cure yet for West Nile, which really bites.

Jack Dempsey / AP Photo

Bubonic Plague

Seven-year-old Sierra Jane Downing, from Pagosa Springs, Colo., watches while her father Sean Downing and mother Darcy Downing talk about her recovery from bubonic plague at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke's during a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Denver. It is believed Downing caught the bubonic plague from burying a dead squirrel.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Whooping Cough

Speaking of antiquated diseases, the whooping cough is another illness once thought to exist only in the more tragic pages of history books. Also known as pertussis, the disease is resurging with rates 13 times higher than usual—and three-fourths of the instances are in previously vaccinated children and adolescents. In 2010, 10 babies in California died from the illness. By September 1, there were already 29,380 reported cases of the illness in the U.S. Characterized by severe—and, in some cases, deadly—coughing spells, the whooping cough is likely on the rise because the current vaccine doesn’t last as long as the one used in the 1930s and the disease is adapting to the inoculated population.

Isaac Kasamani / AFP / Getty Images

Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever

The Ebola virus is so gruesome it almost sounds invented for horror films. At its onset, symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. As it progresses, it can cause bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and rectum, and cause a bloody rash on the skin. An outbreak of the ghastly disease recently hit the Democratic Republic of Congo. Confirmed cases have risen to 28, with 14 fatalities reported. The United Nations launched an emergency appeal for $2 million to fight the spread of the disease, fearing that, if not contained, it could have global impact. Ebola is highly infectious, spread through direct contact with bodily fluid.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

New Autoimmune Disease

They are three terrifying words: “the new AIDS.” That’s how a mysterious autoimmune disease afflicting mostly middle-aged Asians was described. The illness causes opportunistic infections that typically affect people with compromised immune systems, which is a symptom of AIDS. The catch: patients reporting the infections did not test positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Further analysis debunked the headline-grabbing notion that the syndrome was “AIDS 2.0,” finding that the immunodeficiencies reported by the patients were not caused by an AIDS-like virus, but by auto-antibodies. Nonetheless, the unanswered questions surrounding the disease are enough to sound the alarm that more research must be done.

John Raoux / AP Photo

Flesh-Eating Bacteria

If there were ever news reports that would make your skin crawl, it’s the coverage of the recent spate of flesh-eating bacteria cases. The most talked-about victim is Aimee Copeland, who contracted necrotizing fasciitis after she fell off a homemade zip line, gashed her knee, and became infected with the flesh-devouring bacteria Aeromanas hydrophilia. The bacterial infection causes muscle, skin, and tissue death, and forced Copeland to have her hands, leg, and foot amputated. In Texas, a 7-year-old boy died after flesh-eating bacteria caused an infection to spread to muscle tissue, while a 33-year-old Michigan woman also died from the disease. Each year, there are 10,000 to 15,000 necrotizing fasciitis infections in the U.S.—almost 20 percent of them deadly.

Caroline Thomas / AFP / Getty Images


For many millennials, cholera is a long-forgotten disease frustratingly contracted only when a player is doing real well on the Oregon Trail computer game. But the disease very much still exists, and is spreading at an alarming rate in Sierra Leone and Guinea. More than 17,400 people have been infected since February and 327 have died. The swift rise in cases was likely triggered by poor hygiene practices, unsafe water sources, and improper waste management. An infection of the intestine, the disease is characterized by profuse diarrhea and vomiting, leading to dehydration and shock.

Vincent Yu / AP Photo

Legionnaires’ Disease

Typically, the most dire affliction people fear when traveling through hotels is bed bugs. But outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in Chicago and Quebec—killing at least 10 people—have changed that. The severe form of pneumonia is caused by bacteria that thrive in warm water. At the JW Marriott in downtown Chicago, a fountain contained the bacteria, causing it to spread to the hotel’s pool, whirlpool, and locker rooms. Cooling systems in two large Quebec buildings may be to blame for the Canadian outbreak, where 165 cases have been reported. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 5 and 30 percent of those infected die.