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.

Ebola’s Friend: Lassa Fever

A large outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria has people worried. The area is observing an unusually high number of cases this year. As of February 18, there have been 913 cases and 73 deaths, compared to 733 cases and 71 deaths in all of 2017.

Like Ebola, Lassa fever is a hemorrhagic fever, though considered less serious than Ebola. According the WHO, Lassa fever usually starts with a fever and progresses to a headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe cases there may fluid in the lungs, and bleeding from the mouth, nose or other areas. In the most advanced stage of the disease shock, seizures, and coma may occur. In fatal cases, death usually occurs within 14 days of the onset. The drug Ribavirin, given via IV, is considered an effective treatment for Lassa fever if given within 6 days of the onset of symptoms.

What’s causing such a large outbreak? According to Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, a couple things may be at play: Improved detection, and that Nigeria’s growing population has brought people closer to the disease host: the infamous rat.

According to NPR:

“West Africa’s dry winters push rodents closer to people to scavenge for food. Virus-carrying rats may defecate or urinate in grains and other food; people can pick up the virus from contact with contaminated products. The virus can also spread between people via bodily fluids. And there are a lot of rats – which means there’s a lot of potential for outbreaks.”

The WHO is scaling up its response to the outbreak, and heath officials are urging people to keep food in sealed containers, as well as limit the proximity of garbage to homes.