EXPLAINER: Why you shouldn’t be worried about the mysterious Disease X.

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The World Health Organisation put the world into a bit of spin this past week when it announced the inclusion of ‘Disease X’ on its annual update of priority diseases.

Featuring eight other deadly diseases like Ebola and Lassa fever, the WHO Research and Development Blueprint list was designed as a way to prioritise diseases as ones researchers and governments should focus on developing treatments and vaccines for.

These diseases are on the list due to their potential to become an “epidemic” with insufficient current “countermeasures” such as treatments or vaccines.

So it’s no wonder that people were alarmed to see a previously unheard of disease with a Zombie movie-esque name like Disease X on the list.

It even prompted headlines like: ‘Disease X could be the world’s next epidemic’ and ‘Deadly new epidemic could kill millions, scientists warn’.

But is Disease X really the huge, terrifying threat to humanity it’s been made out to be?

Well, no. Not exactly.

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What the sensationalist headlines leave out and what some media outlets seem to have misunderstood is that Disease X isn’t even a disease at all. It does not exist. 

The WHO made it clear on their website that Disease X has been included on the R&D Blueprint list to represent diseases that do not exist or have not been discovered yet.

“Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease,” the website states. “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.”

Infectious disease expert Sanjaya Senanayake explained this means the WHO is trying to make sure that governments and scientists around the world are prepared for a non-specific epidemic event caused by a disease of any kind.

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“Disease X doesn’t actually exist. There isn’t a virus or bacteria a yet that is Disease X,” Dr Senanayake, who is an Associate Professor Of Medicine at Australian National University in Canberra, told Mamamia. 

“The point of Disease X is that there is a very good chance that the next pandemic – the next infection that crosses international borders – will be something we haven’t encountered before. History teaches us that.

“It could be a new item, probably a virus, or it could be a bacteria or it could be an existing one that changes its behaviour and becomes more aggressive or transmissible.”

Dr Senanayake said the inclusion of Disease X on the list was a wise choice given that recent outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika were not on anyone’s radar before they became huge problems.

In fact, the WHO first published the priority diseases list in December 2015, arguably in response to the Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 10,000 people in the period since it was first reported in March 2014.

However, Dr Senanayake said most of us don’t need to worry about Disease X. Instead it has been included to encourage the world’s health authorities and scientists to take a proactive approach on epidemics, so hopefully the next time a sudden outbreak occurs, a vaccine and treatment for it is ready in weeks instead of months.

“The idea behind Disease X is that the WHO and health experts are encouraging researchers to focus maybe on groups of viruses that could potentially become more aggressive or cause more severe human diseases and look at vaccines or treatments for them.”

So by including Disease X on the WHO’s list, hopefully, the future disease it represents won’t be so threatening.

Did you hear about Disease X through a misleading or alarmist news story? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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