Every year across the world, 100 global outbreaks occur, which is understandably worrying. In fact, in the US, we may be more at risk of an outbreak happening compared to our neighbours, Canada and Mexico.

As the world is still amid a global pandemic, it can be hard to think of anything else other than coronavirus. But the truth is, we will get through this and unfortunately, there will be outbreaks of other diseases in the future.

We delved into 24 years’ worth of World Health Organization (WHO) data[1], analysing 2,800 different outbreaks, to discover which diseases pose the biggest threat to our nation and which countries are at highest risk.

But, what do we class as an outbreak? The WHO define an outbreak as the occurrence of disease cases over normal expectancy caused by an infection, transmitted through person-to-person contact, animal-to-person contact, or from the environment or other media[2].

Highest Risk Countries - Top 10

  1. Democratic Republic of Congo - 242
  2. China - 184
  3. Indonesia - 147
  4. Egypt - 114
  5. Uganda - 77
  6. Vietnam - 66
  7. West Africa - 58
  8. USA - 52
  9. Nigeria - 49
  10. Sudan - 40

High-risk outbreaks in the US

With 52 outbreaks of diseases since 1996, the US is the 8th highest-risk country in the world. In first place is The Democratic Republic of Congo with 242 outbreaks, followed by China (184 outbreaks) and Indonesia (147 outbreaks).

In the US one of the highest recorded disease outbreaks is Anthrax. Anthrax is a disease caused by a bacterium (Bacillus anthracis) and people can get sick with anthrax after encountering infected animals or animal products. It has also been associated with acts of bioterrorism via contaminated mail. Although the number of anthrax outbreaks may be high, in many cases this is contained to a small number of people and is not spread through human to human transmission. The last outbreak in 2001 resulted in five deaths among 23 cases.

Most Common US Diseases

Climate change may be a contributing factor for the risk of mosquito-borne diseases. An example of this is West Nile disease, of which we’ve had 11 outbreaks across the country. 2002 was a particularly bad year, with 3,587 infections in 39 states, resulting in 211 deaths. A mosquito-borne disease, you’re likely to get it if you’re bitten by an infected mosquito. However, not everyone who is bitten gets sick – it’s estimated that 1 in 5 people who are bitten develop a fever and 1 in 150 have a more serious – and potentially fatal – illness. Whilst there’s no vaccine or treatment, you can reduce your chances of getting bitten by a mosquito by wearing long-sleeved tops and pants and spraying insect repellent on you.

Other diseases we’re at risk of include Swine Flu (a strain of the influenza virus, initially found in pigs, but able to be spread from person-to-person), Zika Virus and Saint Louis Encephalitis – both of which are mosquito-borne diseases.

Most common global outbreaks

Whilst these diseases can potentially be deadly, some of the more lethal outbreaks are much less likely to be found in the USA and surrounding countries.

According to WHO data, the most frequent outbreak across the globe in the last 24 years has been Avian Influenza, with 607 outbreaks. More commonly known as bird flu, poultry is typically affected by this, but humans can get the disease if they’re around an infected bird and inhale the virus through their eyes, nose, or mouth.

In second place is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERs), with 298 outbreaks. First reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, symptoms include a cough, fever and shortness of breath, with some cases leading to death.

Ebola has had 298 outbreaks, with common symptoms including a headache, sore throat, a fever and muscle pain. Cholera and Yellow Fever make up the top five of recurring global outbreaks, with 279 and 167 respectively, over the last 24 years.

Number of outbreaks per year worldwide

Since 1996, the WHO has reported a total of 2,889 global outbreaks – some originating in the US, but many of them elsewhere in the world.

Based on this data, it’s predicted that each year, there could be up to 116 global outbreaks – although 2014 saw the highest number of total outbreaks, at 206; whereas 2011 saw the lowest annual figures, at 59. And, whilst 2020 will forever be remembered as the year COVID-19 was registered as a global pandemic, it might be surprising to hear that so far, 2020 has only seen 58 outbreaks of diseases.

Whilst these figures might sound shocking, it’s important not to worry about this too much. By following general basic hygiene rules and keeping up-to-date with public health advice on ways to protect and prevent yourself from getting various diseases, you can help to reduce your risk of becoming unwell.

But, why do we think infectious diseases remain a public health concern here and around the world? Well, there are many factors including high volumes of individuals travelling overseas which can facilitate the rapid spread of new infections. Other factors include antimicrobial resistance which occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria or viruses change in response to antimicrobial medications with the result that some medications then become ineffective. This in turn can impact the treatment of many infections. Moreover, Zoonotic infections also impact the rise in diseases. In short, these are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. They are very common, both here in the United States and globally.

Methodology:
Data gathered from the World Health Organisation on global outbreaks since 1996 and split between the country of origin, disease type, disease occurrence and date.

Research conducted on September 2nd, 2020:

  1. WHO Disease outbreaks per year
  2. WHO Disease outbreak definitions