Health and Healthcare Systems

5 of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases

An employee in protective clothing does a fast test for coronavirus, developed by Frankfurt's University Clinic and the German Red Cross, that will allow to increase the testing rate per day significant, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Frankfurt, Germany, March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach - Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly

Millions of people around the world die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Lucy Foster
Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Health and Healthcare Systems?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how COVID-19 is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

COVID-19

  • Tuberculosis (TB) is the deadliest infectious disease.
  • More than 600,000 people developed drug-resistant TB in 2016.
  • Influenza infects up to 5 million people per year.
  • Around 94% of malaria fatalities are in sub-Saharan Africa.

With half the planet under lockdown due to COVID-19, it’s fair to say infectious diseases have the world’s attention.

COVID-19, caused by a newly discovered coronavirus, can lead to respiratory illness. It has, in a few short months, infected more than 1.5 million people. More than 89,000 have died. And while there are actions we can take to help slow its spread, there's currently no vaccine or treatment available.

But while the coronavirus is rightly making headlines, there are many other infectious diseases circulating among us.

Have you read?

These diseases are caused by pathogenic organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. Sometimes their spread leads to pandemics that tear through populations, such as the 14th-century bubonic plague, which killed about 50 million people in Europe, or 1918’s Spanish Flu, which infected a quarter of the world’s population.

While the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19 continues, modern medicine and today's sophisticated healthcare systems go a long way to protect us from many of these organisms. But even so, we’re still at risk from the diseases they can cause. Here are some of the deadliest.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

1. Tuberculosis

About 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis (TB) in 2018, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). About 1.5 million died. And even though it’s curable and preventable, it’s still the leading cause of death from a single infectious agent. And it’s in the top 10 causes of death worldwide.

TB is caused by bacteria spread from person to person in the air through coughs or sneezes. It can be treated with antibiotics, but when these drugs aren’t used properly or are mismanaged, multidrug-resistant and extensively drug-resistant TB can occur. Treatment for these strains is long and expensive, and the WHO says multidrug-resistant TB is a public health crisis – in 2016, nearly 500,000 people worldwide developed it.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Deaths caused by diseases preventable through vaccination. Image: Our World in Data

2. Measles

Measles is a highly contagious, serious disease, caused by a virus and spread through coughs, sneezes and close contact. It can survive for two hours in the air and is so contagious that up to 90% of people surrounding an infected person will get the disease if not already immune. A safe and effective vaccine is given to large numbers of the world’s children by their first birthday – 86% in 2018.

But in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, it’s still lethal, killing 140,000 people in 2018. More than 95% of these deaths occur in countries with low per capita incomes and poor health infrastructure. And outbreaks are particularly devastating in places that have suffered from conflict or a natural disaster – just 59% of Haitian children under the age of 1 received their routine vaccination a year after the 2010 earthquake, suppressing herd immunity.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Measles case distribution by month and WHO region. Image: WHO

3. Malaria

History has shown malaria can be effectively managed. It was prevalent in Western Europe and the US but wiped out by the mid-1930s and 1951 respectively. However, in 2018, there were an estimated 228 million cases across the globe, with 405,000 deaths – most of these (94%) occurred in the WHO’s Africa region, with children under 5 representing the most vulnerable group.

Deaths from malaria, however, have reduced by half since 2000, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But one species of mosquito – the Anopheline – is developing resistance to insecticide, while the parasite the mosquito transmits is also starting to resist key drugs. Vector control (insecticide-treated nets and indoor residual spraying) is a vital frontline defence, but as the mortality reduction rate slows, the onus is now on finding new and innovative ways to eradicate the disease, such as using epidemiological data for planning and analysis.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Malaria deaths by region. Image: Our World in Data

4. Influenza

Just as winter arrives every year, so does an influx of influenza, known as the flu. And for most people, the result is a few unpleasant days in bed. But for those in high-risk groups – such as pregnant women, the elderly or people with chronic health conditions – it can be fatal.

The WHO estimates 3 to 5 million people a year contract severe flu worldwide, and up to 650,000 people die. This can put healthcare systems under immense strain during peak infection periods (health workers are at a heightened risk of contracting the disease), and there is a knock-on economic effect as schools and workplaces cope with absences of pupils and staff.

5. Diarrhoeal disease

Cholera and dysentery may sound like 19th-century killers but, unfortunately, the reality is very different. Diarrhoeal disease kills around 525,000 children under 5 every year – in fact, it’s the second-leading cause of death in young children after acute respiratory infections.

It’s usually caused by an infection of the intestinal tract – bacterial, viral or parasitic – and it’s often down to poor hygiene (being passed from person to person) or contaminated food or water – which especially affect the world’s poorest regions. The WHO says 780 million individuals across the globe lack access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion lack decent sanitation.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Diarrheal diseases are one of the biggest killers of children worldwide. Image: Our World in Data
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Renovation and reinvention are key to saving our food system. Here's why

Juliana Weltman Glezer

June 13, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum