Diseases not to die of, ranked

Whether you’re heading into rabies territory overseas or visiting the measles ward at your local hospital, there’s a shot for that.

Without the wonders of modern medicine, many of us would never have reached adulthood. I can already see Darwinists raging against the biomedical machine and insisting that we cull the weak, so I’ve got to point out that, actually, the strong did not survive the black plague. They won’t survive rabies, either.

Thanks to antibiotics, vaccines and hygiene, you’ve probably managed to go your entire life without seeing someone hack a golf ball of blood into their hanky, or develop gangrene from what looked like the flu. Don’t be fooled. These diseases are right outside your door, ready to latch on to the first compromised immune system that comes along.

To help you check your medical privilege and work toward a healthier future, here’s a list of some well-known preventable diseases, and the steps you can take to avoid anything from an ugly fortnight to an untimely and disgusting death

10) Mumps

It’s not normally a killer, but it does make you look funny. The frog chic look is caused by swollen salivary glands, which are the tip of the iceberg: mumps can sometimes skip your cheeks and go straight to your testicles. In more serious situations it can swell up your internal organs.

Most people got their mumps shot as a kid – it’s part of the MMR vaccine alongside measles and rubella – but if you haven’t, you’ll want to consider getting one now. The older you are, the worse it is. Adults can become deaf, contract viral meningitis, or develop your classic encephalitis (brain swelling is going to come up a lot in this list). The MMR vaccine is available for adults as well as kids, which is good news; M number two is coming up next.

The cheek shape is right, but this is much cuter than real mumps.

9) Measles

Measles is a media darling, running up and down the country shining a light on anti-vaxxers in our community. Measles presents with fever, rashes, white spots inside your mouth, and a cough. It lasts for only 7-10 days.

Hey, you’re thinking, that doesn’t sound so bad. I don’t mind being called Mould Mouth for a week. Well, that’s kind of a dick move. Measles is highly contagious, so while you have it you’re putting everyone around you at risk of becoming the one in a thousand people who will die from it. Complications can include diarrhoea, pneumonia, hearing loss, and brain swelling. Death by measles is rare but possible – like many other infections, the cause is brain swelling.

If you were born after 1969 the vaccine is free. It’s also available as part of the aforementioned MMR vaccine.

So-called “sniffles” are often an encephalitic dog-whistle. (Photo: MPLS Archives)

8) Hepatitis B

Unlike other STIs, the symptoms of Hep B don’t stick around down south. You’re looking at a lot of vomiting, jaundice, and fever alongside the perverse phenomenon of dark urine and pale poos. In the more advanced stages, liver cirrhosis and cancer are on the cards.

It’s worth mentioning that, like many other STIs, you can contract this in non-sexual ways: sharing needles, blood transfusions and vampirism are all equally valid ways of contracting Hep B.

Vaccines are available for free for everyone under 18. A common response to the vaccine is some short-lived diarrhoea, but at least it’ll be the right colour.

An artist’s rendition of a diseased liver. You can expect much worse.

7) Diphtheria

It starts out with a sore throat and a fever, but before long you could be looking at blue skin and new throat membranes, which grow over your air holes and give you a Billie Eilish death rattle. You’ll also burst with disgusting, weeping lesions. If you don’t seek treatment quickly, you could face paralysis in your eyes, throat, and respiratory muscles; as well as heart failure. As a fun bonus, some forms of diphtheria will also destroy your genitalia.

Most people are immunised against diphtheria as children, alongside tetanus and pertussis. If you’re not sure how on-the-ball your parents were, you can receive these shots as an adult.

Keep out of my house, Billie Eilish. (Photo: National Library of Medicine, USA)

6) Meningococcal Disease

It’s not clearly understood how this one spreads. It can move through saliva, but people have been known to contract the disease without kissing or biting anyone. Because some people carry it without showing symptoms, there’s no way to tell who’s going to give it to you – that’s why some of us got those “don’t share spit” water bottles in primary school. They probably would have been more effective if they didn’t all look the same.

The first symptom is a sudden, high fever. You may also vomit and find bright lights painful. Once the bacteria gets into your blood, you have three options: blood poisoning, pneumonia, or meningitis (brain inflammation). With a kill rate of up to 15 per cent, and 20 per cent of survivors experiencing complications like hearing loss, brain damage, or the loss of a limb – it’s worth the jab.

This is a picture of the brain, to remind you where you will feel death first.

5) Polio

Polio is a lifelong nightmare, which is why it has been the focus of health organisations for a century. Once contracted, you could experience fever, aches, permanent muscle paralysis, uneven limb growth, bone deformities, breathing problems, brain damage, death – or a fun mix of all the above.

Since the introduction of polio vaccines in 1962, there have been only seven cases in New Zealand. In 2017, only 22 cases of polio were recorded worldwide. This is an incredible decrease from the hundreds of thousands of cases that occurred decades ago. It’s on track to becoming the third disease ever eradicated by modern medicine, following smallpox and rinderpest. Why not do your bit?

A free mirror comes with each iron lung so you can tell how old you are, because you’ll never look out the window again.

4) Rabies

Some write this off as a figment of Antebellum fiction, but it’s real and it’s absolutely rank. Bats and dogs are the most common sources of saliva-spread rabies, but it can live in any mammal so please, take care around frothing cows, too.

Once symptoms begin – which can take anywhere from seven days to seven years after infection – you have only a week to live. By the end of the week you will be a drooling, convulsing, filthy rage monster. After contracting rabies, you have 48 hours to seek treatment, which lasts for a month and consist of several painful injections.

New Zealand and Australia are currently free of rabies, but so many countries play host to it, and the incubation period is so unpredictable, that it’s possible to bring a zombie apocalypse into the country every time you go to Bali or the States. If your doctor suggests vaccinating before your holiday, I’d take them up on it.

You could look as grim as this dog.

3) The Plague

That’s right, it’s Most Retro Disease 2019: the plague! Updated for the new century, this revitalised infection is ready and willing to kill you in just one day! Symptoms of the plague include chills, seizures, gangrene and giant black swellings.

Earlier this month, a Russian couple died of the plague after eating a raw marmot kidney. Soon after that bizarre culinary choice, they developed fevers, vomited blood, and died. Strong antibiotics need to be taken immediately after contracting the plague. Unfortunately, the symptoms can take a few days to show up, so you might shoot your shot too late and die anyway. If you’re going into plague territory (pockets of the U.S., South America, Asia, and Africa), stay close to a pharmacy and try not to eat marmots.

At one point, the plague got so bad that all the doctors died and had to be replaced with birds. (Image: 19th century engraving of a plague doctor)

2) Tuberculosis

Called “the consumption” by poetic doctors in the Middle Ages, this romantic disease causes night sweats, chest pain, and general malaise. The magic of TB is that, given time, it can flourish into so many different forms of death: pleurisy, meningitis, and Potts disease (whereby your spine has holes eaten out of it) are all on the menu. Given the chance, TB will eat almost all of your bones. Don’t worry, it eats them slowly – you’ll probably drown in your own lung blood first.

In New Zealand, 300 cases of TB are recorded every year. That’s far too many considering how removed we are from the overcrowded factories of Victorian England. It can be treated with antibiotics, but has been known to become antibiotic-resistant. Thankfully, there’s a vaccine. Because children under five are most at risk of catching TB, there’s a neonatal immunisation available. The vaccine is less effective on adults – so if you’re reading this, it might be too late.

Fading away from a galloping consumption.

1) Tetanus

Have you ever wondered would it be like if every single muscle in your body contracted at once? Here’s the horror-movie answer: all your bones would break! Agonising, yes, but not lethal. Not until you starve to death because your jaw is wired shut by your own traitorous fascia.

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It begins with lockjaw. The spasms then progress down, first to your neck – it’s difficult to swallow. You cannot turn your head to shout for help. The spasms keep moving, encompassing all of your body until you reach your final form: an arch, called opisthotonos by the Ancient Greeks – yeah, I guess it’s kinda cultured.

Tetanus takes months to recover (or die) from. Because all that cramping is great exercise, you’ll have a feeding tube dripping up to 4,000 liquid calories into your stomach every day. You will not be able to piss that out with dignity. 

With ten per cent of cases being fatal and tetanus being one of the most readily-available vaccines in New Zealand, there’s no reason not to get that booster.

Opisthotonos, the last shape you throw before death.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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