It seems like every time you click on the TV or open up a newspaper, there’s a story about yet another infectious disease that’s gotten loose in the world.

Consider these recent events: South Korea closes schools and quarantines an entire community after a deadly MERS outbreak. The US Military accidentally ships live anthrax to labs across the globe. Millions of chickens on American farms die of Avian Flu. And while the Ebola epidemic has subsided, the disease is still making headlines thanks to fear of a resurgence.

Don't grab a face mask and head for the hills just yet, though. There’s a “very low probability” of being infected by an exotic disease like Ebola or MERS, according to Donald R. Hoover, a professor of statistics and biostatistics at Rutgers University's Institute of Health, Health Care Policy & Aging Research.

“Even though we have worried about them for years, cumulatively Ebola, MERS, SARS and 'weaponized anthrax' have killed fewer than 100 people in North America,” he says, adding that public health efforts get much of the credit for this healthy record.

“Personally I worry more about being hit by  lightning when I go running or getting Lyme disease from a deer tick when I work in my yard.”

Related: The Other Tick-Borne Diseases You Need to Beware

Who should be worried about what

Some people may be at an increased risk of coming down with an exotic disease because of their job, where they live or their lifestyle. Here’s what everyone should know about the five most newsworthy infections.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

MERS, which affects the lungs and breathing tubes, has killed an estimated 36 percent of its victims. Nine people died in the recent South Korea outbreak, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The disease first appeared in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in 2012, probably via diseased camels. The only two documented cases in the U.S. occurred in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Related: Germ-Free Flying

Fortunately, it’s much easier to catch a cold from someone else than it is to become infected with MERS. You need to be in very close contact. The CDC advises seeing a doctor if you develop a cough, shortness of breath or other symptoms of a respiratory illness and have:

  • Visited a healthcare facility in South Korea within 14 days of developing symptoms
  • Visited anywhere in or near the Arabian Peninsula, also within 14 days
  • Come into close contact with someone who might have MERS

While there's no vaccine for MERS, the Mayo Clinic recommends basic sanitary precautions, such as disinfecting doorknobs and other frequently touched surfaces, not touching your face with unwashed hands and not sharing items like eating utensils with a sick person.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

SARS and MERS are both “coronaviruses,” so named because the surface of the virus is covered with crown-shaped spikes.

SARS first appeared in 2002 in China. It spread across the globe for about a year, infecting 8096 people. Of those, 774 died, according to WHO. A focused, international effort by public health organizations got the epidemic under control and there’ve been no reported cases of SARS since 2004.


Anthrax is a bacteria that lives naturally in soil where it can infect livestock and wild animals. Rare among humans, infection with anthrax can bring on a wide range of symptoms, including fever, nausea, respiratory ailments, coughing up blood, swelling and skin sores, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Although it’s unlikely that the military transport of live anthrax will result in an epidemic, it is possible to become infected by the bacteria after being in contact with infected animals or their products, such as meat, wool or hides. There’s no evidence of human-to-human transmission, although the skin sores that develop in someone who’s sick might be contagious.

People who may be at risk of being infected by anthrax include:

  • Veterinarians, livestock producers and lab workers
  • People who handle animal products for a living
  • Travelers to regions where anthrax is common
  • Emergency response workers and mail handlers (in the event of another terrorist attempt to send anthrax through the mail system)
  • People who make or play drums made from animal hides. Drum handlers should use hides only from healthy American animals or from imports that are certified by a veterinarian as safe.

There also have been reports of heroin users in Europe contracting anthrax from infected needles.

There is a vaccinefor anthrax. It’s normally given only to people who have certain high-risk occupations.


With this form of hemorrhagic fever, victims suffer severe bleeding. The fatality rate for Ebola has ranged from 25 percent to 90 percent, according to WHO.

The largest Ebola epidemic in history began in 2014. Concentrated in West Africa, over 15,000 confirmed cases resulted in more than 11,000 deaths. In the United States, there’ve been only four cases of Ebola and one death, according to the CDC.

The epidemic has declined in recent months, although West Africa remains at risk. “While a future resurgence is possible, one should consider that the most recent Ebola epidemic had no impact on the U.S., arguably because our public health system was diligent,” says Hoover.

Avian Flu

The virus that causes avian flu (aka bird flu) exists naturally among wild aquatic birds, but it can infect other birds and animals, including poultry livestock.

In December, a highly contagious strain of avian flu virus called H5N2 began to spread though farms across the United States. To date, over 47 million domesticated birds have died of the flu or been slaughtered.

Like any flu virus, avian flu can mutate rapidly. Currently several strains exist in the world. A minority of them can infect humans, usually after handling infected birds or carcasses.

Regarding avian flu, the Department of Agriculture advises the following:

  • Report sick birds to state or federal health authorities
  • Avoid contact with sick or dead birds
  • If for some reason you do touch an infected bird, wash your hands and change clothes before coming into contact with healthy birds
  • Owners of birds, including pets, should keep them away from wild birds

Hoover believes that of all exotic diseases, avian flu “has the most potential to be a problem” in North America. “Avian flu has killed millions in the past,” he explains. “This places it in a different category.”

Your best defense against bird flu? A yearly flu shot. “Make sure you and your loved ones get any vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control,” advises Hoover.  

David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.