Incurable non-fatal infectious diseases?
June 15, 2014 7:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of contagious infectious diseases for which there is no known cure (and which do not clear on their own) but which are non-fatal (or can be rendered so with known treatment). So basically, a disease where once you catch it you've got it forever, but it probably won't kill you, at least in the short term. Examples: Herpes Simplex, HIV.

I'm NOT looking for examples of incurable but manageable diseases that are not believed to be caused by infection and which are not contagious. So diabetes, schizophrenia, and Lupus don't count.
posted by 256 to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Any of the herpes really. Chicken pox, once you've got it it lives in your spine and can certainly out as Shingles. Mono can resurge in times of stress/weakness. Though that's less constant illness and more constant potential.
posted by platypus of the universe at 7:32 AM on June 15, 2014

Hep C is a lifelong chronic illness. It doesn't kill most people, though it certainly can.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:49 AM on June 15, 2014

Lyme disease?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:00 AM on June 15, 2014

posted by heatherann at 8:04 AM on June 15, 2014

Malaria. Have a friend who picked it up in Africa.
posted by bessiemae at 8:08 AM on June 15, 2014

posted by McCoy Pauley at 8:09 AM on June 15, 2014


(And HIV still is fatal all over the world, just much less so in North America these days. I went to a lot of funerals back in the 90s.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:10 AM on June 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

posted by dr. boludo at 8:11 AM on June 15, 2014

Both leprosy and malaria are curable. Of course if you develop a treatment-resistant strain then it becomes much more difficult (potentially impossible), but that goes for any infection. So maybe look into antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus and the like?
posted by shelleycat at 8:35 AM on June 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dengue fever. I know a woman who got it over 20 years ago, and still has to take powerful medal one day a week, to combat what would otherwise cause issues. The meds are such that she is incapacitated for the day when she takes them.
posted by dbmcd at 8:56 AM on June 15, 2014

HIV can turn into AIDS and still be fatal. Hep C has a cure now, it's monsterously expensive, but it's there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:21 AM on June 15, 2014

My father had Dengue Fever and has no residual side effects or medication necessary at all. It's a virus and there's no treatment as such, just symptom management while your immune system sorts it out. After effects probably depends on the exact strain (there are different types), but it's not automatically a life sentence.
posted by shelleycat at 10:12 AM on June 15, 2014

Tuberculosis. TB is theoretically curable, except for the many strains which aren't. A healthy person usually is symptom free for many years, especially with treatment, but when their immune system gets weakened the infection takes over.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:16 AM on June 15, 2014

It would be helpful if you could clarify whether you are using contagious disease in the dictionary sense of infectious diseases that can be transmitted by ordinary physical contact with other infected humans and do not require vector species such as mosquitos.
posted by drlith at 3:03 PM on June 15, 2014

Hmm, hadn't realized leprosy was now curable. I blame my ignorance on early exposure to Stephen R. Donaldson.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 3:12 PM on June 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are hundreds of members in the herpesviridae, some of which were probably permanently incorporated into our species' DNA at one point or another. A few still give us problems, epstein-barr virus ("infectious mononucleosis") herpes simplex, herpes zoster (chickenpox and shingles).

Similarly there are two main culprits in the polyomaviridae family, the BK (kidneys) and JC (brain) virus with probably more that are undiscovered. Those only seem to cause problems in near-fatal impairment of the immune system but prevalence seems to be nearly universal.

Is HIV now technically curable with bone marrow transplantation? Only you can decide. I vote no.

Hep B, C self-resolve most of the time, although not always.

A repeat infection of dengue can cause huge problems, but I've never heard of latent infection, which is a problem in malaria (treatable).

Human papillomavirus are self-resolving the majority of the time, as is the molluscum contagiosum poxvirus.

Tuberculosis, lyme disease, toxoplasmosis and leprosy are decidedly curable.

Measles has that infamous "subacute sclerosing panencephalitis" problem, as horrifying as that is I'm not sure whether that qualifies.

The inclusion of polio is questionable, post-polio syndrome has a negative viral culture.

Lingering thoughts of the looming, inevitable XDR tuberculosis do keep me up at night, that doesn't seem to meet your criteria.

Executive summary: herpesviridae, polyomaviridae.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 4:17 PM on June 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Toxoplasmosis is a good recommendation, also Chagas disease if you don't catch it early.
posted by juliapangolin at 7:47 PM on June 15, 2014

Valley fever sometimes is cured, sometimes goes into remission. I only vaguely know how it works in animals and not at all in people.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:17 PM on June 15, 2014

Someone mentioned HPV but I want to remind you that not only the oral and anogenital strains but the ones that cause common warts and plantar warts stick around for life. Pretty unsexy but there it is - unlikely to kill you but contact-transmissible and incurable.

A few nonviral possibilities that might or might not make the cut depending on technicalities:
Rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease are autoimmune complications of infection with group A streptococci. Strep is transmissible and curable with antibiotics, rheumatic fever is neither. By the time the autoimmune complications occur, the strep bacteria itself is almost always gone, especially with antibiotics.

Variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, caused by the prions that also cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), is incurable and can be transmitted by blood transfusion, tissue transplantation, use of products from contaminated cell and tissue cultures, and the use of prion-contaminated surgical instruments. Most people who get this get it from eating prion-contaminated beef but iatrogenic transmission is a deal, too.

And I am warning you that I'm about to list a bunch of parasitic diseases now and the details are super-disturbing and gross. The technicality for these parasites is that they're waterborne or arthropod-borne rather than contact-transmissible or airborne. So you can stop reading now if that technicality means these diseases are not relevant.

, infection with the tiny worm Onchocerca volvulus, causes itching and blindness. The larval form of the worm is transmitted by black fly, matures to adulthood and mates in the tissues, and releases more larvae into the bloodstream. Drugs are available to kill the larvae but not the adults, so it takes 10 to 15 years of annual treatment to cure.

Loaisis, infection with the African eye worm Loa loa is technically treatable with drugs but the treatment not uncommonly results in fatal brain inflammation and sometimes people avoid the whole treatment-with-drugs thing in favor of surgery to take the worms out of the eye, and sometimes they go with a less toxic but noncurative treatment. The worm is transmitted by deerflies.

Dranunculiasis, guinea worm infection, isn't curable or treatable with drugs but it does resolve after you stop drinking water with copepods in it and after all the worms have emerged from your body, which is about fifteen months after infection. (It causes all the effects you would expect from worms that mate in your gut and then eat their way out towards your skin.) So if you can't get clean water it's with you for life, but it's also the target of a worldwide eradication program because although it's incurable, if we can stop people from getting reinfected, we can stamp out the disease altogether because the human phase is necessary to the worm's life cycle. So that's good.
posted by gingerest at 12:16 AM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Many people naturally clear HPV from their bodies. (In the sense of their immune system taking care of the virus, not in any naturopathic sense.)
posted by JohnLewis at 8:03 AM on June 16, 2014

Viruses are pretty difficult to study. Beyond the broad generalizations I made above, if you really want to go down the rabbit hole I recommend you start with this paper on bornavirus. Someone with more expertise in the topic would have to take over from there, however.

Acceptable approach to the topic in the NYT:
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 4:10 PM on June 16, 2014

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