What is Disease X?

Forget about preparing for zombie outbreaks. We should all be preparing for Disease X instead. Each year the WHO meets to create a list of diseases that pose a serious international public health risk “because of their epidemic potential and for which there are no, or insufficient, countermeasures.”

Many of the diseases listed are routine players, such at Ebola, Lassa Fever, SARS, and Zika. But this year, the WHO added “Disease X.” According to the WHO, “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease…”

John-Arne Rottingen, a scientific adviser to the WHO committee says:

“Disease X could be be sparked by a zoonotic disease – one that jumps from animals to humans – and then spreads to become an epidemic or pandemic in the same way H1N1 Swine flu virus did in 2009…As the ecosystem and human habitats change there is always the risk of disease jumping from animals to humans. It’s a natural process and it is vital that we are aware and prepare. It is probably the greatest risk.”

So what does the WHO recommend? Sure, worrying helplessly might seem fun, but they suggest better diagnostics, existing drugs & vaccine improvements, and more research.They do not explicitly suggest a zombie preparedness kit, but you could certainly use your imagination for what Disease X may turn out to be, and plan accordingly.

Slugs Are Gross, Don’t Eat Them

National Geographic reports that a teenager in Australia swallowed a slug on a dare. It left him in a coma for more than a year and paralyzed from the neck down. This is nauseating to even type, but don’t eat slugs. Aside from the obvious vomit inducing reasons, they could carry the brain infesting rat lungworm.

Rat lungworm is found in Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, and the southern U.S. It’s also starting to spread to new places. Hawaii reported six cases over three months last year, where it had previously reported only two cases in the last ten years. According to the Hawaii Department of Health, rat lungworm is a disease the affects the brain and spinal cord. It’s a type of roundworm that is only found in rodents but can be passed through their larvae:

Snails, slugs, and certain other animals (including freshwater shrimp, land crabs, and frogs) can become infected by ingesting this larvae…Humans can become infected with A. cantonensis if they eat (intentionally or otherwise) a raw or undercooked infected intermediate host, thereby ingesting the parasite.

The infection can can cause a rare type of meningitis which can lead to brain damage, paralysis, or stroke. Some people may show no symptoms while others may have severe symptoms. They may include severe headache, neck stiffness, tingling or painful feelings of the skin or extremities, and light sensitivity. Symptoms generally last two to eight weeks. There is no specific treatment for rat lungworm.

If people dare you to eat bugs, gastropods, or other unsightly creatures, just say no. Or as National Geographic says, “As rat lungworm reaches new parts of the world, experts say we’re the ones who are going to have to adapt. And a good first step is not eating raw gastropods.”

Platypus Milk to Fight Superbugs

Scientists are on the search for new ways to fight superbugs, and have discovered a protein in platypus milk that could save lives. Superbugs, a catch-all term for antibiotic resistant bacteria, increasingly threaten our existence. According to the CDC, “each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.”

Platypus have a unique feeding system. Instead of teats, the milk concentrates in their belly, and they feed their young by sweating the milk out. Scientists think that this feeding system produces antibacterial protein in the milk “in order to protect the young from the possibility of infection. When mammals evolved teats, a sterile delivery system for milk, the protein was no longer as important in an evolutionary sense.”

According to Janet Newman, CSIRO scientist and lead author on the research, “Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry.” National Geographic describes the platypus “as a hodgepodge of more familiar species” such as the duck, beaver, and otter. Male platypus are venomous and have stingers on their feet that can deliver poisonous blows, which is a pretty nifty defense mechanism I wish I had.


Dentists Dying of Mystery Lung Disease

The CDC has identified a cluster of lung disease cases among dentists and dental workers who were treated at a Virginia care center. All were diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), “a chronic, progressive lung disease of unknown cause and associated with a poor prognosis.”

Seven of the nine patients have died. According to the CDC, the estimated survival rate after diagnosis is only 3–5 years. “Although IPF has been associated with certain occupations, no published data exist regarding IPF in dentists” so the CDC is anxious to find out the cause:

 A questionnaire was administered to one of the living patients, who reported polishing dental appliances and preparing amalgams and impressions without respiratory protection. Substances used during these tasks contained silica, polyvinyl siloxane, alginate, and other compounds with known or potential respiratory toxicity.

Although the cause of IPF is unknown, the CDC says that “exposures that have been suggested as contributing factors include viral infections, cigarette smoking, and occupations where exposure to dust, wood dust, and metal dust are common.”

Mumps Are Nothing to Cheer About

Thousands upon thousands of cheerleaders who were at the National Cheerleaders Association All-Star National Championship in Dallas, Texas in February may have been exposed to mumps by a fellow attendee. According to NBC, “more than 23,000 cheerleaders and 2,600 coaches from 39 states and nine countries have been advised to watch for mumps symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches, and swollen jaw and cheeks.”

According to the CDC, mumps is spread through the saliva or mucous and in rare cases can cause deafness or brain swelling. Most people who get mumps have very mild symptoms or none at all (which means they may unknowingly spread the virus) and many will recover in a few weeks.

Most people who are vaccinated against measles with the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) are protected. Many are vaccinated as children, and the mumps portion of the vaccine is estimated to be 88% effective with two doses. However, “In 2016, 6,366 cases were reported — the worst year for mumps in the U.S. since the MMR vaccine program was introduced in 1977.” Another glowing achievement of the anti-vaxxer movement perhaps?