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Disease outbreaks are increasing

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When serious infectious diseases or even epidemics arise, it is important to respond quickly and take appropriate preventive measures. Because viruses do not respect national boundaries, global sharing of information is essential – decision-makers in other parts of the world must also be aware of the risks posed by emerging pathogens.

For this reason, WHO has been publishing official “disease outbreak news” online since 1996. In addition to information on the spread of the disease, freely accessible reports also contain information on how affected countries are dealing with it.

More and more infectious diseases

An American research team led by Dr. Rebecca Katz of Georgetown University in Washington took a closer look at the WHO reports. The team analyzed about 2,800 “breakout stories” from the inception of the coverage until the start of the coronavirus pandemic in December 2019.

In principle, the researchers did not aim to identify and compare outbreaks. However, analysis of the reports showed that the total number of disease outbreaks globally has increased dramatically in recent decades.

Katz wasn’t surprised by the observed trend, she says in an interview with Science.ORF.at: “We already know from other studies and from our many years of experience that there has been a very significant increase in global infectious diseases.” According to the doctor, this is a trend that is likely to continue in the future.

influenza, ebola, and yellow fever

It has been difficult to pinpoint the total number of disease outbreaks worldwide, according to Katz, but analysis of WHO reports has revealed some concrete data. Accordingly, some diseases have more often been the focus of WHO than others. Nearly 800 of the 2,800 reports were of “real flu” outbreaks. Influenza A virus has been responsible for most WHO reports over the past 23 years.

There have also been numerous reports of MERS-CoV and Ebola – both infectious diseases causing just over 300 reports each. Countries that have particularly featured in “breakout news” are China, Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Criticism of WHO reports

However, according to the doctor, it is not entirely clear how much the number of WHO reports actually says about the prevalence and frequency of an infectious disease. In her view, the WHO reports left a lot to be desired in some areas. The actual goal of the US study, which Katz and her team are currently presenting in the journal PLOS Global Public Health, was to bring more clarity to the WHO reports.

“There is a lack of consistency and clarity about which disease outbreaks are worth reporting,” Cutts said. The doctor cites anthrax as an example. This is an infectious disease that cattle, among other things, frequently catch – but anthrax is rarely a problem the World Health Organization reports.

More accurate data to search

According to Katz, the lack of standardization and lack of regulations often made “breakout news” unusable to science. Although reporting has improved in some areas in recent years, the data is still not accurate enough for scientific comparisons and use in studies.

So the physician-led team coded all 2,800 reports by hand and transferred the relevant information into their database, which the researchers could use in their work. “Here we have created a standardized, accessible tool that we very much hope will be adopted as well,” Katz says.

basis for exciting questions

The database could, for example, help learn more about the causes of growing disease outbreaks: “Using data from nearly 25 years ago, one can delve into exciting questions, such as how the consequences of global warming relate to rising infections.”

Katz also calls on the WHO to design formal reports in the future in a way that can be used for research from the outset. This can help respond faster to outbreaks of potentially dangerous diseases and reduce the impact on the population.

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