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What Is Disease X—And Is It Going To Kill You?

Women's Health logo Women's Health 3/12/2018 Korin Miller

(video courtesy Newsweek) But don't panic just yet.

There's nothing like the spread of an infectious disease to throw people into a worldwide frenzy. (Recall: the Zika and Ebola virus scares in recent years.)

But in a move that's sure to keep you up at night, the World Health Organization just added a new line item to its list of diseases most likely to cause a worldwide epidemic: Disease X.

Just in case you're unfamiliar with this list, here are all the diseases with the power to take down mankind, according to WHO:

· Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (CCHF)

· Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease

· Lassa fever

· Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

· Nipah and henipaviral diseases

· Rift Valley fever (RVF)

· Zika

· Disease X

Some of these may sound more familiar to you than others (oh, hey, Zika), but it's safe to say nobody has heard of Disease X before. 

So What Is Disease X, Exactly?

If you’ve never heard of Disease X before, you’re not alone - WHO basically made it up.

That might seem like an uncool move designed to incite panic, but the organization explains on its website that Disease X represents an “unknown” disease that could be caused by a biological mutation, terror attack, or accident.

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

What You Should Know About Disease X

The whole purpose of including Disease X on the list is to get it on people’s radars, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells

“We’ve seen SARS and MRSA emerge, and they weren’t really on people’s list,” he explains. “It’s important for people to think broadly about what causes a disease outbreak. There are a lot of unknowns that may turn out to be important.”

Disease X could turn out to be anything, Adalja says, but it will probably be a respiratory virus with a “moderate fatality rate” that’s unlikely to have a vaccine.

You don’t need to panic about Disease X, but it’s important to know that it’s possible for new infectious diseases to crop up. “You want to make sure people are open to the possibility that there are viruses that aren’t characterized yet,” Adalja says.

Basically, Disease X could turn out to be an issue, or it couldn't - it's really hard to say at this point.


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