There are many sicknesses doctors can cure with the swish of a pen across prescription pad. Despite advancements in modern medicine and for all we understand now about some illnesses, there are still many “mystery conditions” that medicine doesn't fully understand.
Healthwise, we’ve come a long way in recent decades. However, even with the many advancements in modern medicine, some diseases continue to stump doctors and health experts, confound the public and rage on uncontested. Often, we don’t know what causes them — or how to prevent and cure them.
Thirty years since it was first identified, there is still no cure for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS remains among the world's most potent killers, especially in developing countries. The disease likely started with a chimp to human jump, recent research confirmed. According to a 2009 report from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), more than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, as many as 2.7 million people were infected in 2008 and 2 million people died that year. While a cure has yet to be discovered, better treatments and education have made a difference, and a vaccine is currently in the works.
2. Alzheimer's Disease
Not to be confused with the forgetfulness that affects most everyone in their later years, Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disorder that manifests differently in each of its sufferers. It gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities. As the disease progresses, patients may also experience changes in personality — such as anxiety, suspiciousness or agitation — as well as delusions or hallucinations. The exact cause isn't understood and there isn’t a cure yet. But as researchers gain more insight into the biology of the disease there is new hope for preventing the onset of the disease and treating it when it does occur. (See Reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s disease for some of the latest findings.)
3. The Common Cold
With more than one billion cases in North America every year, the causes of 30 to 50 percent of adult colds — presumed to be viral — remain unidentified. We can’t cure this nuisance, but we can often get through it with simple remedies such as bed rest, chicken soup and drinking plenty of fluids. Immune boosting supplements and foods are among the latest weapons in our arsenal, while safety concerns have led experts to warn against the use of over the counter medications for young children.
4. Avian Flu
Humans have no immunity to the powerful flu virus carried by birds — officially known as Avian Influenza A or H5N1 — which health official fear could mutate into a strain that can be transmitted from person to person, or combine with human and swine strains. With no immunity to offer protection, nearly 60 percent of people who have contracted the virus died from it, regardless of their health or age. So far, nearly all of the people who become infected handled infected birds, but there still isn’t a vaccine despite the fact that the virus has been on experts’ radar for several years. A recent cluster of cases, however, appeared to involved its spread between people.
People diagnosed with Pica have an insatiable urge to eat non-food substances like dirt, paper, glue and clay. As many as one third of children ages 1-6 exhibit this behaviour, but it also affects adults too — especially pregnant women. Potential risks include exposure to toxins from ingesting unhealthy substances (like lead in paint) and bowel obstructions. While health experts believe pica may be linked to mineral (iron or zinc) deficiency, the exact cause — and cure — have yet to be found.
6. Autoimmune Disorders
Doctors still don’t fully understand the immune system…or what happens when it turns on us. Currently, doctors know of at least 80 autoimmune disorders — including Lupus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and celiac disease — but there are at least 40 or more other illnesses related to the immune system. In these conditions, the body’s immune system starts to see muscles, joints, tissues and even organs as enemy invaders. Unfortunately, doctors can’t do much except treat the symptoms and help patients identify and avoid potentially life-threatening flare-ups. (For more information, see Autoimmune diseases: a primer.)
Experts consider this the most puzzling of mental disorders, one which robs the sufferer of the ability to logically distinguish between reality and fantasy. Symptoms range wildly between patients and include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, lack of motivation or emotion, but the disease has no defining medical tests. Though we can’t cure this disease yet, the Schizophrenia Society of Canada recommends that we should do more to understand it — and remove the stigma and barriers so patients and families can get the support they need.
8. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)
Credit: Keith Weller
One version of this rare brain disorder is better known "Mad Cow" and can be contracted by eating contaminated beef. "Regular" CJD is also always fatal, quick-acting and is the most common form, but develops in most patients for reasons doctors have yet to figure out and can not prevent. CJD is type of prion disease, where a prion (an abnormal bit of protein) causes brain wasting. However, research into these rare conditions may offer wider benefits. Thanks to their potential ties to cancer, investigating prion diseases could offer clues to treating and preventing conditions like melanoma and lymphoma. (See the recent story in the Vancouver Sun for details.)
9. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
Chronic fatigue is a classic MUPS (medically unexplained physical symptoms) disease, with a diagnosis based only on the ruling out of other possibilities. While CFS patients complain of debilitating exhaustion, and are often bed-ridden for days at a time, there’s more to this disease than just “feeling tired all of the time.” Patients experience a variety of symptoms, such as joint pain, headaches, depression, blurry vision and increased allergies or sensitivities. Even worse are the misunderstandings sufferers often face from loved ones and the medical community — not everyone believes this disease “exists”.
10. Morgellons Disease
This mysterious illness, which has cropped up again recently, displays almost sci-fi symptoms. Sufferers complain of intensely creepy-crawly skin and odd fibrous strands which protrude from open wounds. The skin lesions contain tiny threads or fuzz balls that are black, red or blue. People who think they have Morgellons often experience disabling fatigue, mental decline described as “brain fog,” mood disorders and joint pain. While some health experts attribute the “disease” on a shared psychotic delusion, others believe the symptoms to be real.