Epidemics, Epishmemics

When I tell people I’m an epidemiologist, I often see the look of revelation on their pleased faces, and must interrupt their reply: “It has nothing to do with skin, you know,” I say. “You’re thinking of the word epidermis, which is what dermatologists deal with. The root word for epidemiology is epidemic.” And this usually launches into a discussion of current, past or projected epidemics, most of which I know little about, since most epidemiologists are not infectious disease experts, and are instead just over-educated and under-paid data entry clerks.

As a generalist, of course, I’ve been called upon to speak authoritatively about a variety of global epidemics, such as SARS and Avian Flu. These topics are so trendy that even war correspondents are writing about them, as in this week’s Eric Margolis column. And London’s Sunday Times, in an article sent to me by Good Ol’ Nojjy Boy, takes time out to deride our definitions of epidemic and pandemic. The Guardian does a similar thing here, though without the derision. So today, let us discuss briefly some of the suggested underreported epidemics of our time.

1. Male Sexuality

There has been strong anecdotal, and some empirical, evidence of a continued increase in global prevalence of male impotence and infertility. There is, of course, no baseline data for either of these pathologies, so it’s hard to say whether the increase is real or not. And how much of the furor is driven by drug companies’ need to market their new anti-impotence drugs? Female sexuality is even more problematic, since it’s less well defined, poorly measured and less researched. Part of the problem is that women tend not to report sexual dysfunction as readily as do men. Or perhaps they don’t recognize their issues as medically dysfunctional.

2. Allergies

Anyone who has small children or spends a lot of time with small children knows that in North America one of the biggest concerns in schools and daycare centres is the prevalence of life-threatening food allergies. Peanut-butter, a staple of toddler nutrition for decades, is now a killer. This seems to be exclusively a North American phenomenon, so the theory is floated that a unique American behavioural element has triggered this epidemic; perhaps the overexposure of the current generation of parents to peanut products?

3. Crazy People

My sister is a professor at a Canadian university. Both she and her professor husband have reported anecdotally a problem with an increasing number of their students having pathological emotional issues. In their experience, it’s young women who typically display this behaviour. As I seem to have dated most of these crazy chicks, I’m wont to agree. A friend of my sister estimates that 40% of young people are taking drugs for mental illness. I cannot confirm this statistic, but it does not surprise me. The questions are, of course: whether mental pathology is being over-diagnosed; whether psycho-pharma drugs are being over-prescribed; whether there is a social phenomenon indicating a true increase in prevalence; or whether this is yet again a case of improved surveillance providing what we epidemiologists call “detection bias”, whereby we are finding more cases simply because we are looking for them.

All gripping stuff, I’m sure. Got any more potential epidemics you’d like to share with me? Smart-ass comments are, as always, quite welcome.