Annual WHO Report Reveals Top 10 Pathogens That Pose Greatest Risk To Public Health In 2018

The Spanish flu infected one-third of the world's population. Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine/Library of Congress Wikimedia Commons

Roughly once a year, the World Health Organization (WHO) publishes a list of the pathogens posing the greatest risk of a Contagion-level catastrophe. Or, as they put it: “This tool seeks to identify those diseases that pose a public health risk because of their epidemic potential and for which there are no, or insufficient, countermeasures.”

The diseases selected will be prioritized by the WHO Research and Development (R&D) Blueprint team for the next year, but the report authors warn it's “not an exhaustive list” and it does not “indicate the most likely causes of the next epidemic”.

So, who made the cut? In no particular order, the diseases to watch out for in 2018 are:

  1. 1. Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF)
  2. 2. Ebola
  3. 3. Marburg virus
  4. 4. Lassa fever
  5. 5. Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)
  6. 6. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
  7. 7. Nipah and henipaviral diseases
  8. 8. Rift Valley fever (RVF)
  9. 9. Zika
  10. 10. Disease X

  11. If you haven’t heard of Disease X it’s because it’s not a known disease, rather the recognition that a currently unknown pathogen could be the next Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide in less than two years. By including it on the list, the WHO is acknowledging the fact it has to prepare for this eventuality as a top priority.

The team also considered a number of other diseases, including monkeypox, leptospirosis, Chikungunya, West Nile Virus, plague, and Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (SFTS). The latter had been added to the list in 2017 but was downgraded this year.

“These diseases continue to pose major public health problems and further research and development is needed,” the report authors added. The researchers particularly highlighted the need to improve diagnostics and vaccines for pneumonic plague, which was responsible for a deadly outbreak in Madagascar late last year.

Other health concerns raised in the report were disease spillover from animal populations – after all, the majority of infectious diseases in humans do come from animals – and antimicrobial resistance, an issue the WHO has called an "increasingly serious threat to global public health". 

  1. The WHO released its first list of potential pandemic-provoking pathogens in December 2015 when eight diseases were singled out as top priorities. Those eight diseases are still on the list. Zika was added last year after the mosquito-borne virus was declared a global public health emergency in 2016, while Disease X is its most recent addition.
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