10 Diseases That Used to Be Death Sentences

By: Alia Hoyt
1665 census
The plague was by far the most common cause of death in this 1665 census. Fortunately, it's almost nonexistent in the 21st century.
Nicole Duplaix/Photolibrary/Getty Images

When it comes to medicine, times have changed more than most of us realize. At the tender age of 4, I (and most of my friends) dealt with the itchy, feverish misery that is chicken pox. My dad's generation lived in fear of polio, and his mother dealt with rampant scarlet fever. Thanks to modern medicine, these and many other diseases have been rendered preventable, treatable or are simply far less common than in their heyday. In fact, many diagnoses that were once grimly given are now handled with relative ease, sometimes outright curable. Early detection, pharmaceuticals, vaccines and cutting-edge surgeries have completely revolutionized health care as we know it, making infectious or acquired diseases far less dire than they used to be.

Sadly, the Catch-22 of many of these diseases is that treatments exist, but aren't always available in developing nations. So, even if they're curable in the United States or Western Europe, millions still unnecessarily lose their lives elsewhere due to lack of medical care or drug availability. Public health organizations are continuing to chip away at this issue, but it'll likely be a long process.


Nevertheless, progress has been made. We'll look at 10 diseases that used to spell death for patients, but not so anymore, starting with one that's fairly recent in origin.

10: AIDS

aids billboard in africa
An AIDS awareness billboard in Blantyre, Malawi.
Photofusion/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

You probably know the basics of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Back in the disease's terrifying heyday of the 1980s and early '90s, even experts knew precious little about how to treat HIV, which is usually transmitted through unprotected anal or vaginal sex or by sharing drug needles [source: CDC]. Common symptoms include rashes, fever, enlarged lymph nodes and a sore throat. Over time, if untreated, a body with HIV loses the ability to fight off infections, which leads to AIDS [source: CDC]. Contracting HIV used to be a death sentence, but not anymore, thanks to the introduction of antiretroviral drugs in the mid-1990s.

"In the early days, people diagnosed with HIV had a life expectancy of about eight years," says John Brooks, M.D., medical officer in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Today, a person who is promptly diagnosed with HIV and appropriately treated can look forward to a close-to-normal life span." Modern antiretroviral therapy can be administered in as little as one pill per day, eliminating symptoms, but stopping short at actually curing the disease, of course [source: WebMD].


In 2010, AIDS was the seventh leading cause of death among the 25-44 age bracket in the U.S., having peaked at No. 1 in both 1994 and 1995 [source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation]. Yet, the epidemic is far from over, with about 34 million people in 2014 infected around the globe, often unaware they even have HIV or AIDS [source: amfAR].

9: Tuberculosis

claire boothe luce, 1945, tb
Writer and ambassador Claire Boothe Luce visits a surviving deportee from the Buchenwald concentration camp afflicted with tuberculosis in 1945.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Ever seen a period movie where the heroine coughs droplets of blood into a hanky? You've witnessed a re-enactment of the disease that was a leading cause of death in the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s [source: NIH]. Back in 1892, tuberculosis (TB) was responsible for one out of seven deaths in the U.S. [source: Haynes].

Also known as consumption, TB spreads when a person infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis coughs, sneezes or otherwise transmits droplets through the air to someone else [source: CDC]. Roughly a third of the global population is infected with latent TB, which yields no symptoms and is not contagious in that stage, but probably will be in time [source: WHO]. Once it evolves into TB disease, the bacteria usually wages war on the lungs; hence the notoriously bloody cough, as well as chills, night sweats and fever.


Antibiotics and upgraded living conditions have significantly contributed to the decline of TB in modernized countries. Unfortunately, it continues to plague developing countries, with roughly 95 percent of TB diagnoses and deaths situated squarely in their borders. However, treatment and containment efforts are making a dent; the worldwide death rate from TB dropped 45 percent between 1990 and 2012. Nevertheless, multi-drug resistant TB is at very high levels [source: WHO].

8: Rabies

rabies, dog injection
A veterinarian checks a dog's heartbeat before giving it a rabies vaccine injection at a community office in Beijing, China in 2007. That year, rabies topped the list of fatal infectious diseases in China for several months.
China Photos/Getty Images

If you're ever bitten by a dog, bat, raccoon or other angry animal, you should hustle to a hospital with haste. Even if the animal is more bad-tempered than rabid, this disease isn't something you want to take a chance on. Once symptoms appear, rabies is transformed into a painful illness that fatally attacks the central nervous system, causing confusion and delirium and eventually death [source: CDC].

However, rabies is very treatable as long as it's caught before symptoms emerge [source: Humane Society]. Most people know when they've been bitten by an animal, making the risk easy enough to assess, and post-exposure treatments and vaccines are available to stop symptoms before they start [source: CDC]. Awareness and treatment are credited with keeping the U.S. death toll at two or three people per year, down from 100 in the early 1900s [source: CDC].


7: Bubonic Plague

plague in greco-roman times
This engraving from 1754 depicted a plague epidemic in Greco-Roman times. The plague has broken out in different countries through the centuries but none as horrific as the outbreak in 14th century Europe.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Also known as the Black Death, the bubonic plague seems too terrifying to be true, but the sad fact is that it killed more than 75 million people in 1300s. The horrific spread began in Asia and worked its way into Europe, where about one-third of the continent's population was infected, suffering through myriad symptoms like apple-sized swellings that oozed blood and pus, aches, pains, vomiting, fever and chills, before dying. Although the initial phase wound down around the 1350s, the disease has continued to periodically pop up around the world [source: History].

We now know that bubonic plague is spread by infected fleas and rats, and is best kept under control with public health and improved sanitation efforts [source: History]. That doesn't mean it's history. More than 10,000 people contracted the disease in the Congo between 2000 and 2009. Even in the U.S., 56 people caught the plague during that same period (seven died)[sources: Huffington Post and Bloomberg]. Antibiotic treatment can now quickly cure this once definite death sentence, but it must be done fast. If the bacteria reach the lungs, it becomes pneumonic plague, which can rapidly turn fatal [source: WHO].


6: Smallpox

smallpox man
The telltale red pustules on this man identify him as being affected with smallpox. Although the disease has been eliminated from Earth in natural form, fears of smallpox use as a bioterrorism weapon continue.
Getty Images

One of the oldest diseases in the world (Ramesses V of Egypt, who died in 1157 B.C.E. apparently had it), smallpox killed 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century [source: Flight]. The condition got its name to distinguish it the "great pox" (aka as syphilis). This contagious disease is spread by face-to-face contact with an infected person. Symptoms include fever, headache and severe back pain followed by telltale red pustules all over the body, which leave pitted scars [source: WHO].

Smallpox was also the first disease for which a vaccination became available. Britain's Dr. Edward Jenner had heard that milkmaids who had contracted the mild disease of cowpox never developed smallpox. In 1796, he tested the theory by injecting a boy with some pus from a cowpox pustule and saw that it gave him immunity to smallpox [source: Flight]. The breakthrough was enormous and paved the way for the science of vaccination. In 1959, the World Health Organization decided to eradicate the disease from the planet by isolating smallpox patients and vaccinating everyone in an area where smallpox was detected. In 1980, the organization declared victory; smallpox was no more [source: WHO].


5: Syphilis

syphillis, 16th century
This engraving shows a doctor attempting to cure a man of syphilis in the 16th century.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Think of syphilis as the granddaddy of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). One of the oldest on the books, it's suspected to have affected many over the centuries, including England's King Henry VIII and composer Franz Schubert [source: History]. Syphilis is highly contagious because symptoms are often confused with other problems, if they're apparent at all. Sores can be easily mistaken for mundane annoyances like ingrown hairs, for example, or they hide in the anus or other crevices. If left untreated, syphilis can progress through the uncomfortable first and second stages into the third stage, which is characterized by dementia, heart disease, organ failure and other serious, life-threatening issues [source: Brown University]. No wonder it was referred to in centuries past as the "great pox" or just "the pox."

This disease used to be very widespread. In the early 1900s, it was estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population had syphilis [source: Jabbour]. After the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, the death rate tumbled. Incidence of primary and secondary syphilis in the U.S. in 2013 was down to around 5.3 cases per 100,000 people (but double the all-time low rate reported in 2000 of 2.1) [source: CDC]. Prevention and early treatment of this disease is urged to prevent resurgence and other long-term health complications.


4: Influenza

Although flu outbreaks happen from time to time, they are far less deadly than they used to be.
Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

Every year, influenza (or "the flu") does its best to confound vaccine-producing scientists. Sometimes vaccines work pretty well, and other years they miss the mark a bit. This is because flu viruses constantly change, leaving vaccine makers to take an educated guess at creating a treatment that will effectively combat that year's most common strains [source: FLU.gov].

Most of the time, seasonal flu causes significant illness and discomfort in the form of fever, chills and body ache, but this highly contagious illness usually isn't life-threatening. Certain groups are at higher risk, like people over age 65, young children, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women [source: WHO].


Flu outbreaks have occurred that devastated populations, however. The worst on record was probably the 1918 outbreak that killed approximately 40 million people worldwide [source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. Science today appears to be on our side, thankfully. In 2014, there were 250,000 to 500,000 deaths from influenza worldwide [source: WHO].

3: Cervical Cancer

Gardasil is one of two vaccines available for preventing most forms of cervical cancer.
Russell Kirk/Merck & Co. via Getty Images

As recently as the 1940s, the leading cause of death among women in the U.S. was cervical cancer. But the advent of the Papanicolaou(Pap) test contributed to a 60 percent decline in cervical cancer death rates and incidence in the United States between 1955 and 1992 [source: NIH]. The test, which is typically administered during annual gynecological visits, can identify precancerous cells before they have a chance to get out of control.

Pap tests check for the presence of human papillomavirus, some versions of which are transmitted sexually, and can cause cell changes that result in cervical cancer [source: Haynes]. In recent years, experts have begun encouraging adolescent girls to receive the HPV vaccine, which can altogether prevent certain types of the virus [source: National Cancer Institute]. Nearly 4,000 women died in 2010 of cervical cancer, although the rate is dropping by the year [source: CDC].


"Within our lifetimes, we may see a country free of women dying from cervical cancer if screening and vaccination is done in an appropriate and timely way," explains David Espey, M.D., acting director in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at CDC.

2: Malaria

girl with malaria
A girl with a high fever gets tested for malaria at the CARE medical clinic at the Yida refugee camp along the border between North Sudan and South Sundan.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Mosquitos pack the potential for more than just annoying, itchy red bumps. In fact, they transmit the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria, which is characterized by chills, sweating and fever, among other symptoms [source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. Although it has been largely eradicated in North America, the Caribbean and much of Europe, malaria is still a serious concern in tropical and subtropical countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Public health initiatives have rendered malaria both preventable and treatable, as long as it's done correctly and quickly. Rapid diagnostic tests, followed by tailored antimalarial treatments have saved at least 3 million lives since 2000. Between 2000 and 2013, global deaths from malaria have fallen 42 percent [source: WHO]. As with most of these diseases, prevention with such new technologies as insecticide-treated bed nets is encouraged by infectious disease experts [source: Haynes].


1: Pneumonia

nicaraguan pneumonia
A doctor examines a chest x-ray of a child with severe pneumonia at the Oscar Danilo Rosales Hospital on July 31, 2009 in Leon, Nicaragua.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images For Save the Children

Pneumonia is sneaky, to say the least. It often strikes in the midst of another illness, like bronchitis or the flu. But it's a lot less of a death sentence than it used to be. In 1900, it was the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. In 2006, pneumonia was the eighth most common cause of death, along with influenza [sources: American Lung Association and CDC].

Caused by fungi, bacteria, viruses or other small germs, pneumonia occurs when said germs reach and infect one or both lungs [source: American Lung Association]. Although it is typically treatable, pneumonia is sometimes difficult to get under control, and can cause difficulty breathing, lung abscess and other complications. Bacteria can also invade the bloodstream, potentially causing organ failure [source: Mayo Clinic]. Experts typically advise high-risk groups, particularly people over age 65, to be vaccinated to prevent getting sick or experiencing complications [source: CDC].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Diseases That Used to Be Death Sentences

In a perfect world, everyone would have access to the prevention and treatment methods that are so effective against these diseases. I applaud public health advocacy groups for continuing the frustratingly slow trek toward providing underdeveloped countries with the medical marvels we often take for granted.

Related Articles

  • American Lung Association. "Pneumonia Fact Sheet." 2014 (July 29, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4829a1.htm
  • American Lung Association. "Understanding Pneumonia." 2014 (July 24, 2014) http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/pneumonia/understanding-pneumonia.html
  • amfAR. "Basic Facts About HIV/AIDS." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.amfar.org/About-HIV-and-AIDS/Basic-Facts-About-HIV/
  • Basak, Sonali and Jennifer Oldham. "Four Cases of Life-Threatening Plague Found in Colorado." Bloomberg. July 19, 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-18/four-cases-of-life-threatening-plague-found-in-colorado.html
  • Brown University. "Syphilis." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/sexual_health/sexually_transmitted_infections/syphilis.php
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Achievements in Public Health..." July 30, 1999 (July 29, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4829a1.htm
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Cervical Cancer Statistics." 2014 (July 29, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/statistics/
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "HIV in the United States: At a Glance." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report." July 30, 1999 (July 29, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/wk/mm4829.pdf
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Pneumococcal Vaccination." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/VACCINES/vpd-vac/pneumo/default.htm
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Rabies: What care will I receive?" 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/medical_care/index.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Tuberculosis (TB)." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/tb/
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "What is HIV?" 2014 (July 29, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Who's at Risk for HIV?" 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/index.html
  • Cohen, Jennie. "Did Blood Cause Henry VII's Madness and Reproductive Woes?" March 4, 2011 (July 23, 2014) http://www.history.com/news/did-blood-cause-henry-viiis-madness-and-reproductive-woes
  • Flu.gov. "How the Flu Virus Changes." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.flu.gov/about_the_flu/virus_changes/
  • Flight, Colette. "Smallpox: Eradicating the Scourge." BBC. Feb. 17, 2011. (July 24, 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/smallpox_01.shtml
  • Ghose, Tia. "Bubonic Plague Still Kills Thousands." Sept. 27, 2013 (July 23, 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/27/bubonic-plague-kills-thousands_n_4005495.html
  • Griffin, R. Morgan. "Advances in HIV Treatment: Understanding ART." WebMD. 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.webmd.com/hiv-aids/features/hiv-aids-treatment-advances-art
  • Haynes, Benjamin N. Senior press officer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. E-mail interview, July 23, 2014.
  • History. "Black Death." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.history.com/topics/black-death
  • Mayo Clinic. "Rabies: Causes." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/rabies/basics/causes/con-20019900
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Pneumonia Complications." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pneumonia/basics/complications/con-20020032
  • National Cancer Institute. "Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/HPV-vaccine
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Malaria: Symptoms." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/malaria/understandingmalaria/pages/symptoms.aspx
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Toxic Traces: What Made the 1918 Influenza Virus So Deadly?" 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/flu/research/pandemic/pages/toxictraces.aspx
  • National Institutes of Health. "Cervical Cancer." 2014 (July 29, 2014) http://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/viewfactsheet.aspx?csid=76
  • National Institutes of Health. "Tuberculosis." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=31
  • Patton, Monica E., et al. "Primary and Secondary Syphilis." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 9, 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6318a4.htm?s_cid=mm6318a4_w
  • Payne, Daniel C. Ph.D., et al. "Manual for the Surveillance of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 1, 2014 (July 29, 2014) http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/surv-manual/chpt13-rotavirus.html
  • Tate, JE, et al. "2008 estimate of worldwide rotavirus mortality in children younger than 5 years before the introduction of universal rotavirus vaccination programmes: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Feb. 12, 2012 (July 23, 2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22030330
  • The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Vaccine Trivia Corner Archive." 2014. (July 23, 2014) http://www.chop.edu/service/parents-possessing-accessing-communicating-knowledge-about-vaccines/trivia-corner/trivia-archive.html
  • The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. "The HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the United States." April 7, 2014 (July 29, 2014) http://kff.org/hivaids/fact-sheet/the-hivaids-epidemic-in-the-united-states/
  • The Humane Society of the United States. "Understanding Rabies." Sept. 26, 2013 (July 22, 2014) http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/facts/rabies.html
  • World Health Organization (WHO). "Overview of malaria treatment." 2014 (July 23, 2014) http://www.who.int/malaria/areas/treatment/overview/en/
  • World Health Organization. "Plague." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.who.int/topics/plague/en/
  • World Health Organization. "Smallpox." (July 22, 2014)
  • World Health Organization. "Tuberculosis." 2014 (July 22, 2014) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs104/en/