The Emerging and Reemerging Infectious Diseases

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Even before the Ebola epidemic of 2014–15, Ebola was considered an emerging disease because of several smaller outbreaks between the mid-1990s and 2000s.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

Both WHO and some national public health agencies such as the CDC monitor and prepare for emerging infectious diseases. An emerging infectious disease is either new to the human population or has shown an increase in prevalence in the previous twenty years. Whether the disease is new or conditions have changed to cause an increase in frequency, its status as emerging implies the need to apply resources to understand and control its growing impact.

Emerging diseases may change their frequency gradually over time, or they may experience sudden epidemic growth. The importance of vigilance was made clear during the Ebola hemorrhagic fever epidemic in western Africa through 2014–2015. Although health experts had been aware of the Ebola virus since the 1970s, an outbreak on such a large scale had never happened before. Previous human epidemics had been small, isolated, and contained. Indeed, the gorilla and chimpanzee populations of western Africa had suffered far worse from Ebola than the human population. The pattern of small isolated human epidemics changed in 2014. Its high transmission rate, coupled with cultural practices for treatment of the dead and perhaps its emergence in an urban setting, caused the disease to spread rapidly, and thousands of people died. The international public health community responded with a large emergency effort to treat patients and contain the epidemic.

Emerging diseases are found in all countries, both developed and developing. Some nations are better equipped to deal with them. National and international public health agencies watch for epidemics like the Ebola outbreak in developing countries because those countries rarely have the health-care infrastructure and expertise to deal with large outbreaks effectively. Even with the support of international agencies, the systems in western Africa struggled to identify and care for the sick and control spread. In addition to the altruistic goal of saving lives and assisting nations lacking in resources, the global nature of transportation means that an outbreak anywhere can spread quickly to every corner of the planet. Managing an epidemic in one location—its source—is far easier than fighting it on many fronts.

Ebola is not the only disease that needs to be monitored in the global environment. In 2015, WHO set priorities on several emerging diseases that had a high probability of causing epidemics and that were poorly understood (and thus urgently required research and development efforts).

reemerging infectious disease is a disease that is increasing in frequency after a previous period of decline. Its reemergence may be a result of changing conditions or old prevention regimes that are no longer working. Examples of such diseases are drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, bacterial pneumonia, and malaria. Drug-resistant strains of the bacteria causing gonorrhea and syphilis are also becoming more widespread, raising concerns of untreatable infections.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: