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You'd Rather Be Dead ...

Men's Health
December 1, 1999

... than have any one of these 10 horrifying and peculiar afflictions

THE PHILOSOPHER Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is when you cut your finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die." If this is true, then the following story contains the most comedic material you've ever read.

We're about to present the 10 most miserable diseases on the face of the earth. They're hideous, painful, and in some cases downright phantasmagoric. Their symptoms make you long for a comparatively pleasant malady, such as a brain tumor or paralyzing stroke.

You may ask yourself, "Why, God? Why is Men's Health printing this collection of biological atrocities?" Well, we hope you'll scan this list of horrifying maladies and thank the Higher Powers that you don't have them. What was it you were saying earlier about the sniffles?

Affliction 1

You're feverish and nauseated, and there's a small white worm poking out of your foot

* Possible cause: dracunculiasis (a.k.a. guinea-worm disease)

Let's say you're in a depressed area of Yemen or central Africa. You stoop down to drink water from a stream. There's a good chance the water you just drank contains a millimeter-long crustacean called cyclops. There's an even better chance that Mr. Cyclops recently dined on the embryos of guinea worms.

Your gastric juices make short work of the cyclops, but the guinea-worm larvae, which had been living in the cyclops, poke holes through your intestines and go swimming in your body. Three months later, the male and female larvae get busy. One year later, a full-grown guinea worm, which is the width of a paper-clip wire and up to 3 feet long, starts moving through your body, causing you a hellish amount of pain. Finally, the worm pokes out of your body--probably from your foot.

Here's the kicker: Once the worm exposes itself, you can pull out only a few centimeters of it a day. Otherwise the worm will break apart and die, which can cause a miserable infection that will have you following the worm into the hereafter. Sometimes the removal process takes weeks or months. It's a hell of a thing to have to explain at the office. "Oh, this worm? That damned dracunculus again. I've still got 2 feet to go."

* Chances of contracting it: Zero, if you keep one thing in mind: Next time you're in a depressed area of Yemen or central Africa, don't stoop down to drink the water.

Affliction 2

Your eyes feel as if someone were jabbing white-hot pokers into them, and they turn completely white

* Possible cause: angle-closure glaucoma

If you're lucky, you'll get old someday and end up with ordinary glaucoma. If you're not so lucky, you'll be among the tiny fraction of senior citizens who contract angle-closure glaucoma--a blindingly painful version of the disease in which your cornea (the clear front wall of your eye) swells.

"Imagine a kitchen sink with a single paper towel floating in the water," says Andrew Iwach, M.D., of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "When you're young, the towel is floating high. But as you grow older, it falls closer to the sink opening, potentially blocking it." That paper towel is your iris (the paper-thin, colored portion of your eye), and the sink openings are small outflow channels that are designed to regulate the pressure in the eye.

The result: an excruciating amount of pressure, and corneas that appear to have turned opaque. Is it possible that--after all these years--Nancy and Sluggo were early victims of this disease?

* Chances of contracting it: Practically zero if you're under 30. Even when you pass 40, it's rare. But do ask your ophthalmologist to examine all your ocular tissues and to rule out glaucoma. If he sees that you're predisposed to angle-closure glaucoma, a 10 minute laser procedure can take care of it.

Affliction 3

You can't fall asleep--ever

* Possible cause: sporadic fatal insomnia

Imagine not being able to sleep for more than 1 hour a night. Then your eyes start to tear uncontrollably. Next, your short-term memory slips and you have trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. You become extremely delusional.

You're not Al Lewis. The above symptoms are caused by a brain disorder known as sporadic fatal insomnia, says Jim Mastrianni, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at the University of Chicago. The culprit is a screwed-up protein called a prion. Dr. Mastrianni and other experts still aren't sure why this abnormal protein causes these miserable symptoms. As of now, there is no cure.

* Chances of contracting it: So far, the inherited version has been found in only 24 families. But experts think the sporadic version may be more widespread and could account for previously unclassifiable brain disorders. Cheery news, eh?

Affliction 4

Your head swells to the size of a basketball

* Possible cause: Cushing's syndrome (a.k.a. hypercortisolism)

When most people worry about gaining weight, the parts they usually think about are below the neck. But for victims of Cushing's syndrome, a hormonal disorder, it's the opposite: Their heads and necks swell to a John Goodman-like degree.

To blame is an overabundance of the hormone cortisol--either produced by your body or from hormone therapy used to treat certain ailments, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Ordinarily cortisol is your friend: It helps your body maintain its blood pressure, keeps your inflammatory response in check, helps balance the effects of insulin, and regulates the metabolism of proteins. Too much of the hormone, however, and the body goes wacky, allowing huge amounts of fat to deposit from the neck up, and rendering your skin fragile and easily bruised from the neck down.

* Chances of contracting it: Slim. Cushing's syndrome affects about 10 people per million. Fortunately, there are several treatments and therapies available to keep the Spalding endorsement people away.

Affliction 5

Your eyes burn and itch uncontrollably, as if there were tiny organisms squirming around in them

* Possible cause; conjunctival amebiasis (a.k.a. maggot-eye)

You've no doubt heard the urban legend about the woman who went to her doctor complaining of an earache. To her horror, the doctor found that an insect had crawled into the woman's ear canal, through her brain, and out the other ear. As if this wasn't enough torment, the doctor discovered that the insect had deposited thousands of eggs inside the woman's head! (Cue Twilight Zone theme.)

Thank God it's only an urban legend! Or is it? In maggot-eye, a condition found only on Catalina Island, bug larvae infest people's eyes and begin to hatch, resulting in burning, infection, and itching.

* Chances of contracting it: Nil, as long as you keep flies out of your eyes and pick up a pair of wraparound shades the next time you visit Catalina Island.

Affliction 6

You have explosive diarrhea 20 times a day

* Possible cause: Brainerd diarrhea

This condition is named after Brainerd, Minnesota, the town where the first outbreak--or should we say, outburst--of 122 victims occurred in 1983. (Movie buffs may remember this cheery little town from the Coen brothers' movie Fargo.) Patients typically experience fatigue, abdominal cramping, and 10 to 20 episodes per day of explosive, watery diarrhea.

Does it hurt? You bet your ass it does, but at least it won't kill you. However, Brainerd diarrhea can last, on and off, for 3 years. Even worse news: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its cause is still unknown; no evidence of bacterial, parasitic, or viral pathogens was found in any investigation. Nor was any chemical toxin. Since the original outbreak, Brainerd diarrhea has emerged in Henderson County, Illinois, on a cruise ship headed for the Galapagos Islands, and in five other locations in the United States.

* Chances of contracting it: Unknown, since no one yet knows how it spreads. You might want to avoid drinking unpasteurized milk, which may have been how the disease was originally transmitted.

Affliction 7

Hah, hah! Hahahahaha! Hah! Hah, hah!

* Possible cause: kuru (a.k.a. the laughing death)

In 1950, an Australian physician named Vincent Zigas explored the Stone Age cultures in New Guinea, among them a tribe called the Fore. The Fore folks had an interesting way of honoring their dead: They ate them. Stranger still, dozens of members of the tribe had died from what came to be called "the laughing death"--a condition that left its victims insane. They were also unable to walk, speak coherently, eat, or, in the end, breathe. Just a coincidence?

Nope. Eventually, researchers discovered that the laughing death actually resulted from a virus that drills into your brain tissue. (Laughing death is in the same happy disease family as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and mad-cow disease.) The virus, of course, was passed on through the brains of the deceased when they were gobbled up by their descendants.

* Chances of contracting it: Zero, as long as you resist the urge to dig up your relatives and eat their brains with a nice Chianti.

Affliction 8

You're a walking zombie

* Possible cause: East African trypanosomiasis (a.k.a. African sleeping sickness)

Geez, from the number of horrible diseases that crop up on the African continent, you'd think Out of Africa was a biological disaster flick.

Here's how this one goes: A bite from the tsetse fly delivers a parasite called Trypanosoma brucei. The bite develops into an agonizing red sore, which is followed by fever, severe headaches, irritability, extreme fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and aching muscles and joints. But that's nothing compared with what happens when Mr. T. enters the central nervous system. The victim then finds he can no longer concentrate on anything; he loses his appetite for food, work, and life in general. Every physical movement--speaking, chewing, blinking--takes herculean effort. After weeks of life as a slightly warmed-over corpse, he falls into a coma and dies--the only pleasurable part of the experience.

* Chances of contracting it: According to the World Health Organization, more than 300,000 cases were reported in Africa in 1996. If you live on another continent, you should be fine. If you're planning to visit Africa, think twice about Angola, Congo, Uganda, and Sudan--countries in which, the World Health Organization says, the disease is at epidemic levels. Can't avoid those places? Wear khaki or olive; tsetse flies dig very bright and very dark colors. Also make sure you're wearing thick fabric, since the buggers can bite through
thin duds.

Affliction 9

Your flesh transmogrifies into solid bone

* Possible cause: fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva

The initials FOP stand for more than Fraternal Order of Police. FOP is also a genetic disorder that causes bone to form in muscles and other connective tissue. Some unlucky sufferers actually suffocate from this, once the tissues around their lungs turn to bone. Other people are just locked into place. Forever.

"All of my joints are locked except for my right wrist," says Jeannie Peeper, an FOP sufferer and president of the International FOP Association. "I was fortunate in that my hips locked in a sitting position. Some other sufferers were locked standing."

Experts have narrowed down the location of the FOP gene, but are still unsure of why it causes the body to produce extra skeletal parts over the years. It is known that any bump or trauma to an FOP victim can speed up bone production, which makes life one great precarious hell. There is no treatment or cure.

* Chances of having it: One in 2 million. Strangely, one of the first signs of FOP is that you're missing a joint in your big toe.

Affliction 10

You smell like rotten fish

* Possible cause: trimethylaminuria (a.k.a. fish-odor syndrome)

This genetic anomaly was discovered relatively recently, but it's been around for a long, long time. Even Shakespeare refers to it in The Tempest, describing a deformed slave as having a "very ancient and fish-like smell."

If your friends taunted you with nicknames like "Cod Boy" and "Fishy" when you were growing up, you may have trimethylaminuria, which is generally an inherited condition. According to Eileen Treacy, M.D., a pediatrician at McGill University in Montreal, sufferers are deficient in FM03, an enzyme that is responsible for processing a stinking compound called trimethylamine (TMA). And if you don't process it, TMA sneaks out in your breath or sweat.

* Chances of contracting it: Since both parents have to be deficient in FM03 for their offspring to be affected, fish-odor syndrome is rare. But experts don't really know how widespread this malady is. After all, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Creepy Disease You Might Want to Get

Normally, dementia is a bad thing. It can leave its victims wearing pink feather boas and inner tubes as they sing "Torn between Two Lovers" on random street corners. But an affliction called frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is different. Sure, it eventually destroys the parts of your brain responsible for speech and personality. But as it selectively shuts down some parts of your brain, other parts--such as your visual perception area--are stimulated and just might go wild with creativity.

According to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, FTD can turn otherwise untalented schmucks into latter-day Van Goghs. One example: a 53-year-old car mechanic with a 10th-grade education who one day started painting detailed pictures of churches he remembered seeing in his youth.

The one slight drawback if you get FTD: YOU won't be able to give an acceptance speech for your National Endowment for the Arts grant.


COPYRIGHT 1999 Rodale Press, Inc.

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