For most of human history, biological agents were the most significant factor in health. These included pathogenic (disease causing) organisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and internal parasites. In modern times, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and accidents are the leading killers in most parts of the world. However, infectious diseases still cause about 22 million deaths a year, mostly in undeveloped countries. These diseases include: tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia, influenza, whooping cough, dysentery and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Most of those affected are children. Malnutrition, unclean water, poor sanitary conditions and lack of proper medical care all play roles in these deaths.
Compounding the problems of infectious diseases are factors such as drug-resistant pathogens, insecticide-resistant carriers and overpopulation. Overuse of antibiotics have allowed pathogens to develop a resistance to drugs.
For example, tuberculosis (TB) was nearly eliminated in most parts of the world, but drug-resistant strains have now reversed that trend. Another example is malaria. The insecticide DDT was widely used to control malaria-carrying mosquito populations in tropical regions. However, after many years the mosquitoes developed a natural resistance to DDT and again spread the disease widely. Anti-malarial medicines were also over prescribed, which allowed the malaria pathogen to become drug-resistant.
In our industrialized society, chemical agents also have significant effects on human health. Toxic heavy metals, dioxins, pesticides, and endocrine disrupters are examples of these chemical agents. Heavy metals (e.g., mercury, lead, cadmium, bismuth, selenium, chromium, thallium) are typically produced as by-products of mining and manufacturing processes. All of them biomagnify (i.e., they become more concentrated in species with increasing food chain level).
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