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6 of the Most Highly Contagious Diseases

October 31, 2020
In 2014, the world was mesmerized, morbidly so, by the outbreak of Ebola that swept through African nations, and, for the first time in history, made its way onto American soil. The awful symptoms that accompany this disease and its high mortality rate -- up to 90 percent -- had media outlets speculating on the potential scale of such an outbreak and the damage that it could do if it took hold in the U.S.

Ultimately, while no one truly knows what the total toll the Ebola outbreak will have, we do know that the disease has claimed fewer than 5,500 people in history. Despite this comparatively small number, over the decades, it has spawned books (like The Hot Zone) and movies (like Outbreak) and captured the morbid curiosity of the general public.

But what about the truly contagious diseases of the world? To get a sense of where Ebola ranks on a global scale, take a look at some of the deadliest contagious diseases by total death toll around the world.

HIV/AIDS

Even though HIV takes a tremendous toll each year, claiming about 1.6 million lives, the number of people currently living with the disease is more than 35 million. And while those diagnosed with HIV in the initial stages of the epidemic had a life expectancy of months to a few years, since antiretroviral therapy (ART) became available in the mid-1990s, the life expectancy for someone infected with HIV has increased significantly. In fact, someone who is promptly diagnosed with HIV today, who seeks and continues treatment, can live close to a normal lifespan. However, therapy is expensive and out of reach for many of those at risk for contracting the disease – including those living in poverty, in the United States and abroad.

There is still no cure for HIV, which can be spread through unprotected sexual contact, IV drug use, contaminated blood transfusions, and from mother to child.