Media coverage of infectious diseases like Avian Flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is more pervasive today than ever before. Continuous reports about the growing number of disease cases around the world and endless predictions about the looming threat of a pandemic have raised global concerns about public health to near panic levels, causing widespread social and economic disruption.

The difference between antiquated diseases like the Black Plague and contemporary ones like SARS, says Ronald G. Nahass, M.D., is the environments in which they occur. Today, factors like rapid and widespread global travel, improved diagnostic capabilities and instantaneous communication influence not only the extent to which an infectious disease thrives, but also the way in which we perceive its threat.

Modern technology has allowed scientists to identify previously unknown (or unnamed) diseases that have actually been around for years, giving a false impression that more viruses are emerging today than ever before. Lyme disease, the most common insect-borne infection in the United States, for example, was first identified in 1975. However, cases of the disease have been recorded in medical journals since the 1950s. Since 1975, researchers have found its vector in mice archived at the Smithsonian for more than a century.

For those living in the United States, infection from everyday hazards poses a greater threat than the infectious diseases appearing so frequently on the evening news. In general, we are more likely to get sick from contaminated surfaces than to contract an infection from a disease-causing vector. According to the CDC, more than 44,000 cases of Salmonellosis are reported each year in the United States, though actual numbers are considered much higher.

Most alarming, however, are the silent epidemics largely excluded from media coverage and public discourse. An estimated 4.1 million Americans are living with Hepatitis C, the most commonly transmitted disease in the United States, yet only 20 percent are aware they are infected. And though hepatitis is curable, little has been done to educate the public about the virus, its symptoms and treatments.

Another infectious disease, tuberculosis, spreads through the air much like the common cold, and is easily contracted through inhalation of a small number of TB germs. With the recent resurgence of the disease, each second, someone new contracts tuberculosis. This results in 1.7 million deaths per year; estimates put world infection rates at 33 percent of the world’s population.

Despite the inherent risk of infectious diseases, there are few simple steps that can help protect against most infections:

  • Immunization. Many of today’s most prevalent diseases can be easily avoided with vaccines, which are a safe and effective defense against infection.
  • Proper hygiene. Cleanliness goes a long way in preventing the spread of communicable diseases. Wash hands frequently, especially after using the restroom or when preparing foods like raw meat. In addition, be sure to regularly disinfect high traffic areas in the home like the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Common sense. Avoid behaviors that increase the risk of contracting a disease, like sharing a soda with someone who’s sick or having sexual intercourse without a condom.
  • Awareness. Check the local health department’s Web site regularly for any alerts or advisories, keep up to date about the most dangerous diseases in that area, and know the warning signs of those diseases.