What is Disease X?
The official Disease X definition refers to the knowledge in the international scientific community that a serious pandemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease in the future. Disease X outbreak is a placeholder name that was adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018.
Now is the most important time to talk about the Disease X pathogen because scientists have previously attempted to warn us about the next pandemic. Unfortunately, these warnings and predictions have largely been ignored by the government, much to the detriment of our current situation.
Why is talking about Disease X important?
Most of us view the COVID-19 pandemic as a freak event. Unfortunately, it is part of a global trend that includes the SARS outbreak in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Ebola outbreaks in 2014, MERS in 2015, and Zika that same year. Disease X could be the next pandemic after COVID-19 which might be worse. The UN certainly thinks Disease X is a real threat to humanity.
Where do new infections come from?
Amongst the millions of undiscovered viruses in animals, over 800 thousand have the ability to infect humans which could be Disease X. These hosts include a range of animals that are not limited to birds, pigs, chimpanzees, and turtles.
A major vector for transmitting viruses is bats. They have been linked to Ebola, Nipa virus, and COVID-19. It is important to remember that we cannot put the blame on bats alone and should instead look at our own behaviour and activities that are encouraging cross-species diseases.
Human activities and pandemics
Outbreaks of animal viruses can be traced to humans infringing on their natural habitat. Several human activities are based on erasing the buffer between civilization and wildlife, which may well bring about Disease X.
This vanishing boundary has brought increased risks. Over 31% of new and emerging diseases are linked to deforestation and land-use change. We have seen the clearing patches of land in the Amazon forest, which creates the perfect breeding ground for malaria spreading mosquitoes.
Another example is Lyme disease. It was first identified in Connecticut in the 1980s and driven by suburbanization. As the landscape became increasingly fragmented, our activities reduced the biodiversity, and species that protected us were lost. These same activities favour the ones that make us sick.
Some wet markets sell wild animals which increases the chances of humans coming into contact with animal diseases. Animals from different parts of the world are held in close proximity in these markets, which allows pathogens to jump from one species to another.
The Western World has also propagated the dangerous practice of factory farming, which currently supplies 90% of the global demand for meat. Factory farms enable viruses to spread easily.
How do we stop Disease X?
In order to stop Disease X, deforestation must be stopped, wet markets will need to be closely regulated and factory farming needs to be overhauled while the human population stops relying on meat for sustenance. However, such measures are not practical or easy to enforce. For example, protected forests in India have resulted in a bitter feud between the local population and the authorities.
A better approach, would be to stymie harmful practices. An important principle is the “one health perspective” when planning for human development. This principle recognizes that the health of animals and our environment are interconnected with human health. If one of these areas are neglected, the other two will be negatively affected.
We must also look for smaller solutions based on location and local conditions. For example, providing alternate sources of employment to populations near forests can stop them from clearing tracts of land for farming.
There are many small ideas that can make a difference. These small and big ideas are undoubtedly going to cost money and other resources.
As this pandemic is being slowly beaten back with the help of vaccines, we might be lulled in a false sense of complacency. However, we must invest right now in order to protect ourselves and future generations from a deadly outbreak of Disease X.