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Should we fear Disease X?

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

15th March 2018 – A sinister sounding disease has been added to the World Health Organisation's (WHO's) list of global priority health threats.

'Disease X' may sound like the stuff of science-fiction nightmares, however, it is a scientific way of warning that a future threat to humans may emerge out of the unknown and take us unawares and unprepared.

After all, 'X' is often called the unknown factor.

History has shown us that millions of people can die from diseases that humans knew nothing about.

The Black Death, or 'the plague', devastated Europe's population in the 14th century. More recently, a particularly virulent type of influenza, called 'Spanish Flu' killed millions in the aftermath of World War I.

What is Disease X?

"Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease," according to WHO's website.

Although it does not exist as an actual disease, the WHO has added it to its priority list so scientists and health professionals can plan for the future.

In essence, it is a hypothetical virus that could cause a major pandemic at some point in the future.

"History tells us that it is likely the next big outbreak will be something we have not seen before", John-Arne Rottingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway and a scientific adviser to the WHO committee told The Telegraph.

What is this priority list?

Disease X is 8th in a list of diseases that experts believe are most capable of causing a public health emergency.

It underlines the need for urgent research and development because they lack drugs for treatment and vaccines for prevention.

What are the threats?

The updated list from the WHO says the current threats that warrant accelerated research and development are:

The WHO points out that the order of diseases on the list does not denote any ranking of priority.

Are there any other major disease threats?

Several other diseases were candidates for inclusion in the list.

These were:

  • Arenaviral Haemorrhagic Fevers, other than Lassa Fever
  • Chikungunya
  • Highly pathogenic coronaviral diseases other than MERS and SARS
  • Emerging non-polio enteroviruses (including EV71, D68)
  • Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (SFTS)

The WHO committee says these diseases pose major public health risks and calls for further research and development, including surveillance and diagnostics.

It says they should be monitored carefully and considered again at the next annual review.

Reviewed on March 15, 2018

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