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Health Information An Expert Opinion:
The Changing Face of Disease

Throughout history, we have seen many different trends in disease. While our great-grandparents worried about polio, whooping cough, mumps and measles, we rarely see those diseases today. Now, we are far more likely to have heart disease, diabetes and asthma than our ancestors were. Discover Rush Online spoke with Miguel Salas, MD, MPH, a family practitioner at Rush University Medical Center who has practiced medicine in his native Colombia and the United States for more than two decades, to discuss how diseases have changed and what is responsible for the new trends.

Q. Which diseases do you see frequently now that weren't as common 50 or 60 years ago, and why are these diseases on the rise?

A. We obviously did not see HIV/AIDS at all; today, it is a worldwide epidemic. And because of globalization, which enables people to travel around the world, we've seen more viral and respiratory diseases, such as SARS and malaria, coming into the United States from abroad.

Industrialization is another factor that has dramatically changed the trends in disease over time. As a society becomes increasingly modernized, it has to find ways to keep pace with the growing demand for manufactured goods and services. This emphasis on growth and innovation creates a number of secondary effects, which, over time, become triggers of diseases.

Q. What are those effects?

A. There are more buildings and factories, more vehicles, innovations such as plastic and air conditioning, etc., that have gradually polluted the air, contaminated the water and increased people's exposure to chemicals. This has contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of cases of asthma, allergies, respiratory illnesses — such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchitis — and metal poisoning since the 1960s.

Also, with the increased emphasis on convenience, people are now consuming more processed foods and fast foods, which are high in fat, sodium and sugar. This greatly increases their risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. All of these diseases have reached disturbingly high levels in this country, particularly among people who are black or Hispanic and from low-income neighborhoods. These problems are due partly to genetics but also to environmental factors: poverty, low education levels, sedentary lifestyles, lack of fresh foods and limited access to health care.

Q. How do you determine when a disease has become reason for collective concern?

A. If at a given time the total number of cases in the population is increasing, and the incidence of that disease (the number of new cases) is decreasing, it means doctors are doing a better job of diagnosing it and staying on top of the problem. But if the incidence is also increasing, you have to say something is wrong; the medical community is not doing a good job of preventing, diagnosing or treating it, and then it becomes a problem that needs to be addressed.

Q. Moving forward, what do you see as the greatest public health challenges?

A. I think we will continue to see increases in the conditions — obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, respiratory infections — associated with industrialization. We'll need to find effective ways of preventing and managing these problems. The good news is that medicine has made great progress so far, and we will continue to find more answers in the future.

Q. What are health care providers doing to address today’s health epidemics?

A. We are addressing diseases on multiple fronts. First, there is a greater focus on prevention. As family practitioners, we are trying to increase awareness and educate people about how to prevent these diseases rather than simply treating them once they are already sick. For instance, the trend in breast cancer has been steady — not decreased, but steady — because women are more aware about how to detect it early. And the trend for cervical cancer has actually decreased because we have been able to screen for it using PAP tests and, more recently, prevent it with vaccines.

Second, doctors are conducting research to find better ways of preventing and managing chronic health problems. Take diabetes, for instance. There are some interesting studies going on at Rush right now looking at the type of diet and amount of exercise people need to effectively control their diabetes.

Doctors at Rush also helped launch a large-scale, community-based, prevention-focused study called the 72 Block-by-Block Project, in which health care providers are partnering with residents, community leaders and businesses in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood to address diabetes, which is an epidemic among Latino residents in Humboldt Park. The goal of this grassroots intervention is to help implement lasting changes in behaviors, attitudes and resources — exercise facilities, fresh foods, etc. — that will improve the health not only of this generation but of future generations. The information from these types of studies will ultimately help health care providers find solutions for larger populations.


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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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