WHO Priority Diseases: Disease X

WHO has added a new, yet unknown disease, calling it ‘Disease X’, in its list of eight priority diseases, which pose a public health risk due to their epidemic potential and for which there are no drugs or vaccine to treat them or prevent them. And there is an urgent need for research into these diseases for better diagnostic methods, improved vaccines and treatment.

“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown “Disease X” as far as possible,” says the WHO.

It is believed that the next big global epidemic could be even deadlier than the presently known diseases such as Ebola. Just as the pathogen is unknown, so is its probable source. But, it is presumed that it will most likely be a zoonotic disease, with animals as the source of infection. And, modern travel and transportation will only facilitate rapid spread of the infection so that it becomes a global threat. Mutations can change the existing viruses into genetically new virus types. Then lab-mutated viruses or creation of new viruses in labs can also be a likely source. We don’t know. These are only speculations.

Urbanization is a public health risk. Newer townships are coming up rapidly or cities are being expanded. The cost of urbanization is deforestation. This means that we are encroaching further into an ecosystem that was previously undisturbed by humans. The resulting closer contact of wild animals and humans allows unknown pathogens to be introduced into the urban areas increasing the risk of potential zoonoses and other diseases. Infectious diseases that were previously unknown or even rare are emerging and re-emerging now.

The need of the hour is to strengthen surveillance, public health care systems and research and development. A robust surveillance system to notice early, something that is unusual, not normal, is the basis of preparedness for an epidemic. Increasing public access to good health care will help in early detection of an epidemic and initiate measures to control it before it spreads further. Communication is crucial for sharing information.

The WHO has sounded a note of caution. Its up to us to be better prepared… “Forewarned is forearmed”.

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