Redefining disease emergence to improve prioritization and macro-ecological analyses

One Health. 2015 Aug 11:1:17-23. doi: 10.1016/j.onehlt.2015.08.001. eCollection 2015 Dec.


Microbial infections are as old as the hosts they sicken, but interest in the emergence of pathogens and the diseases they cause has been accelerating rapidly. The term 'emerging infectious disease' was coined in the mid-1900s to describe changes in disease dynamics in the modern era. Both the term and the phenomena it is meant to characterize have evolved and diversified over time, leading to inconsistencies and confusion. Here, we review the evolution of the term 'emerging infectious disease' (EID) in the literature as applied to human hosts. We examine the pathways (e.g., speciation or strain differentiation in the causative agent vs. rapid geographic expansion of an existing pathogen) by which diseases emerge. We propose a new framework for disease and pathogen emergence to improve prioritization. And we illustrate how the operational definition of an EID affects conclusions concerning the pathways by which diseases emerge and the ecological and socioeconomic drivers that elicit emergence. As EIDs appear to be increasing globally, and resources for science level off or decline, the research community is pushed to prioritize its focus on the most threatening diseases, riskiest potential pathogens, and the places they occur. The working definition of emerging infectious diseases and pathogens plays a crucial role in prioritization, but we argue that the current definitions may be impeding these efforts. We propose a new framework for classifying pathogens and diseases as "emerging" that distinguishes EIDs from emerging pathogens and novel potential pathogens. We suggest prioritization of: 1) EIDs for adaptation and mitigation, 2) emerging pathogens for preventive measures, and 3) novel potential pathogens for intensive surveillance.

Keywords: Disease ecology; Emerging infectious disease; Emerging pathogen; Pandemic.

Publication types

  • Review