Global Public Health Threats


Glossary over Global Public Health Threats

African Union (AU)

The African Union , or AU, is a pan-African organisation whose goal is to propel a united continent towards peace and prosperity.

The AU supports political and economic integration among its 53 member nations. It aims to boost development, eradicate poverty and bring Africa into the global economy.

(Source: African Union website  )


A serious bacterial infection caused by Bacillus anthracis that occurs primarily in animals, but can occasionally spread to humans. It commonly affects hoofed animals such as sheep and goats. Infection in humans often involves the skin (cutaneous anthrax), the lungs (inhalation anthrax), or the gastrointestinal tract.

It gets its name from the Greek word meaning "coal" because of the characteristic coal-black sore that is the hallmark of the most common form of the disease. Anthrax is not contagious and can be treated with antibiotics.

(Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO, Anthrax  )



A class of natural or man-made substances, such as penicillin, that kill or inhibit the growth of some micro-organisms. (Source: GreenFacts, based on CoRIS, Glossary  )


Antiretroviral drugs

Antiretroviral drugs are used in the treatment of HIV infection. They slow down the replication and, therefore, the spread of the virus within the body. (Source: UNAIDS, Fast facts about AIDS   )

Avian influenza

Avian influenza, or "bird flu", is a contagious disease of animals caused by viruses that normally infect only birds and, less commonly, pigs. Avian influenza viruses are highly species-specific, but have, on rare occasions, crossed the species barrier to infect humans. (Source: WHO, Avian influenza frequently asked questions  )



Bacteria are a major group of micro-organisms that live in soil, water, plants, organic matter, or the bodies of animals or people. They are microscopic and mostly unicellular, with a relatively simple cell structure.

Some bacteria cause diseases such as tetanus, typhoid fever, pneumonia, syphilis, cholera, and tuberculosis.

Bacteria play a role in the decomposition of organic matter and other chemical processes. (Source: GreenFacts)



The use, or threatened use of releasing viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants.

Biological agents can be spread through the air, through water, or in food. (Source: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bioterrorism Overview  )

Capacity building

A process of strengthening or developing human resources, institutions, organizations, or networks.

Also referred to as capacity development or capacity enhancement. (Source: MA,  Glossary )


"Building a global network of partners was an essential first step in strengthening international cooperation for alert and response to chemical events. This network is called ChemiNet .

ChemiNet was set up in response to the need for strengthening international cooperation in chemical incident reporting, verification, investigation and response. ChemiNet is a network of consultants and experts in countries.

The objectives of ChemiNet include:

  1. Providing an early warning and alert system for the prompt investigation of events of chemical or possible chemical etiology.
  2. Establishing and strengthening preparedness and rapid response mechanisms.
  3. Strengthening local capacity for surveillance, investigation and rapid response.

Members of ChemiNet include Poisons Centres, WHO Collaborating Centres, departments at WHO HQ, in regions and countries, analytical laboratories and academic institutions, as well as individual consultants and experts." (Source: IPCS Strengthening and working with a global network of partners  )


Cholera is a devastating and, sometimes, lethal disease caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholera.

Cholera usually spreads through contaminated water.

The symptoms are intense vomiting and extreme watery diarrhoea leading to dehydration, which, unless immediately treated, may be fatal.

Cholera can easily be cured by rehydration and administration of salts and electrolytes (Source: WHO, Treatment of Cholera  )


Circulatory system

The system that contains the heart and the blood vessels and moves blood throughout the body. This system helps tissues get enough oxygen and nutrients, and it helps them get rid of waste products. The lymph system, which connects with the blood system, is often considered part of the circulatory system. (Source: NCI Dictionary of cancer terms  )


Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), related to mad cow disease, is a rare, degenerative, fatal brain disorder.

CJD is characterized by rapidly progressive dementia, personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. People with the disease may also experience insomnia, depression, or unusual sensations.

There is no treatment that can cure or control CJD. (Source: WHO, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease  )


Dengue is an infectious disease caused by a virus (genus Flavivirus). It is transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical regions. It is characterized by high fever, severe headaches, and pain in muscles and joints.

(Source: GreenFacts )


Drug resistance

Drug resistance occurs when a cell or bacteria becomes less sensitive to a specific drug. The clinical consequence of this is the decreased effectiveness of that drug to cure a disease or to improve a patient's symptoms.

Respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal diseases, tuberculosis and malaria are the leading killers among the infectious diseases. In recent years, all of these diseases have become resistant to first-line drugs. (Source: GreenFacts )

El Niño

El Niño, in its original sense, is a warm water current which periodically flows along the coast of Ecuador and Peru, disrupting the local fishery.

This oceanic event is associated with a fluctuation of the intertropical surface pressure pattern and circulation in the Indian and Pacific oceans, called the Southern Oscillation. This coupled atmosphere-ocean phenomenon is collectively known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO.

During an El Niño event, the prevailing trade winds weaken and the equatorial countercurrent strengthens, causing warm surface waters in the Indonesian area to flow eastward to overlie the cold waters of the Peru current.

This event has great impact on the wind, sea surface temperature and precipitation patterns in the tropical Pacific. It has climatic effects throughout the Pacific region and in many other parts of the world.

The opposite of an El Niño event is called La Niña. (Source: IPCC Glossary  )



The widespread outbreak of a disease, or a large number of cases of a disease in a single community or relatively small area. (Source: CoRIS Glossary  )


FluNet  is a site for information exchange in the global surveillance of influenza, linking National Influenza Centres and Collaborating Centres. It is coordinated by the World Health Organization.

The participating laboratories can remotely enter data into the central database, and users can search this database to find information in the form of data tables, graphs, maps, and free text. Information is available about influenza, on the extent of clinical activity and virological results by geography, reports and news, and a list of National Influenza Centres and WHO Collaborating Centres.

FluNet is a collaborative project between the World Health Organizations Division of Emerging and other Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Control, and the Institute for Medical Research and Health. (Source: Intute  )

Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN)

"The Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network  (GOARN) is a technical collaboration of existing institutions and networks pooling human and technical resources for the rapid identification, confirmation and response to outbreaks of international importance. The Network provides an operational framework to link this expertise and skill to keep the international community constantly alert to the threat of outbreaks and ready to respond." (Source: The WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network website  )

Haemorrhagic fevers

Viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHFs) refer to a group of illnesses that are caused by several distinct families of viruses. Viral haemorrhagic fevers include Lassa fever, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, Dengue, Marburg and Ebola.

(Source: The UK Health Protection Agency Viral Haemorrhagic Fever  )



HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, a virus that infects cells of the human immune system and destroys or impairs their function. Infection with this virus results in the progressive depletion of the immune system, leading to immune deficiency.

Immunodeficient people are much more vulnerable to a wide range of infections, most of which are very rare among people without immune deficiency.

AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and describes the collection of symptoms and infections associated with acquired deficiency of the immune system. Infection with HIV has been established as the underlying cause of AIDS. (Source: UNAIDS Fast facts about AIDS   )



It is the growth of a parasite within the human body that causes illness. It can be a virus, a bacteria, a fungus or a protozoa. (Source: GreenFacts )


Influenza is a highly infectious viral disease that affects mainly the nose, throat, bronchi and, occasionally, lungs. It is a contagious illness characterized by fever, headaches, sore throat, body aches and congestion of the nose.

Influenza can also lead to pneumonia and death especially among children, the elderly, and those with serious medical condition.

The virus is transmitted easily from person to person via droplets and small particles produced when infected people cough or sneeze. Influenza tends to spread rapidly in seasonal epidemics. (Source: GreenFacts, based on FAO, Agricultural Department, Avien Influenza Glossary  )


A substance that kills insects. (Source: FAO Glossary of biotechnology & genetic engineering  )

International Health Regulations

"Since 15 June 2007, the world has been implementing the International Health Regulations (2005). This legally-binding agreement significantly contributes to international public health security by providing a new framework for the coordination of the management of events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concerns, and will improve the capacity of all countries to detect, assess, notify and respond to public health threats.

Countries that are States Parties to the Regulations have two years to assess their capacity and develop national action plans followed by three years to meet the requirements of the Regulations regarding their national surveillance and response systems as well as the requirements at designated airports, ports and certain ground crossings."

(Source: WHO About the International Health Regulations  )


Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, which affects the skin and nerves.

If left untreated, it can lead to progressive and permanent damage of nerves, loss of sensation and sweating in the extremities. It can paralyse the muscles in the hands, feet and face.

(Source: GreenFacts )


Mad cow disease

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is an infectious, fatal and lethal brain disease of cattle. It degenerates the cells of the brain and spinal cord of the animal.

Spongiform refers to the characteristic appearance of infected brains, which become filled with holes until they resemble sponges, visible under an ordinary microscope.

(Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO Bovine spongiform encephalopathy  )

Marburg haemorrhagic fever

Marburg haemorrhagic fever is a rare, but severe and highly fatal disease caused by a zoonotic (that is, animal-borne) RNA virus. Infection results from contact with blood or other body fluids.

Many infected patients develop severe haemorrhagic manifestations, and fatal cases usually have some form of bleeding, often from multiple sites.

The disease has no vaccine and no specific treatment. (Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO, Marburg haemorrhagic fever  )


Measles is a highly infectious skin disease caused by a virus (fam. Paramyxoviridae). It tends to occur as epidemics and remains a leading cause of death among young children. It is transmitted by nose and throat secretions.

Unimmunized children under five years of age, and especially infants, are at highest risk for measles and its complications, including death.

Infected infants may suffer from severe diarrhoea, possibly causing dehydration, inflammation of the middle ear and severe respiratory tract infections. (Source: GreenFacts, based on US National Institue of Health Glossary  )


Meningitis is usually caused by viruses or bacteria transmitted through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions. Meningitis has a high potential to cause epidemics.

The infection, if untreated, results in an inflammation of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord.

This inflammation can produce a wide range of symptoms, including fever, headache, or confusion and, in extreme cases, can cause brain damage, stroke, seizures, or even death.

Even when the disease is diagnosed early and adequate therapy instituted, 5% to 10% of patients die, typically within 24-48 hours of onset of symptoms. (Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO, Meningococcal meningitis  )

Mustard gas

A chemical agent that attacks the skin and eyes, mustard gas is one of the best known and most potent chemical weapons.

It causes severe blisters and, if inhaled, can damage the lungs and other organs.

Mustard gas also attacks a cell’s DNA, increasing the risk of cancer and birth defects. (Source: GreenFacts )

Nervous system

The nervous system is a complex, sophisticated system that regulates and coordinates body activities.

It is made up of:

  • the central nervous system, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and
  • the peripheral nervous system which includes, the eyes, the ears, the sensory organs of taste and smell, as well as the sensory receptors located in the skin, joints, muscles, and other parts of the body.
Nipah virus

Nipah virus is a newly recognized virus, spreading from animals to humans (zoonotic). It has caused diseases in animals and in humans, through contact with infectious animals.

Nipah virus has become a public health concern, due to its ability to infect a wide range of species, and more importantly by producing a lethal disease in humans.

However, the precise mechanisms of transmission are still unclear and treatment relies on providing intensive supportive care. (Source: GreenFacts, based on US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Hendra Virus Disease and Nipah Virus Encephalitis  )


An epidemic that is geographically widespread; occurring throughout a region or even throughout the world. (Source: CoRIS Glossary  )



The plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. Bubonic plague is the most common type in humans. It is transmitted to humans by fleas, by direct exposure to infected tissues or aerosol droplets.

The disease is characterized by fever, chills, headache, and tender lymph glands.

If diagnosed early, bubonic plague can be successfully treated with antibiotics. (Source: GreenFacts, Based on the Centers for Diesease Control and Prevention Plague (Yersinia pestis)  )



Inflammation of lung alveoli, the tiny air sacs deep within the lungs where carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged.

Pneumonia can cause symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle stiffness, chest pain, coughing up of phlegm, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing.

The disease can be acute or chronic and is usually caused by bacteria or viruses. (Source: GreenFacts)



Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children.

The Poliovirus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system.

Many infected people have no symptoms, but do excrete the virus in their faeces, hence transmitting infection to others.

Initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis, which is often permanent.

Polio can only be prevented by immunization. (Source: WHO, Poliomyelitis  )

Rift Valley fever

Rift Valley Fever (RVF) is a viral disease that primarily affects (domestic) animals but also has the capacity to infect humans. An infection can cause severe disease in both animals and humans, leading to high rates of disease and death.

It spreads as mosquito-borne epidemics during years of heavy rainfall. Rift Valley fever is more deadly than the West Nile virus.

(Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO, Rift Valley fever  )


Rubella is an infection caused by the rubella virus, which is usually transmitted by droplets from the nose or throat.

Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) is an important cause of severe birth defects. Even though it is a mild childhood illness CRS causes many birth defects.

Deafness is the most common, but CRS can also cause defects in the eyes, heart, and brain.

When a woman is infected with the rubella virus early in pregnancy, she has a 90% chance of passing the virus on to her fetus. This can cause the death of the fetus, or it may cause CRS. (Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO Rubella  )

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

A newly identified acute respiratory syndrome caused by a new virus, the SARS coronavirus, which is believed to recently have crossed the species barrier from animals to humans.

Signs and symptoms are similar to flu at the outset but progress to pneumonia-like symptoms. Whilst most infected patients have recovered, the lack of specific treatment options has resulted in mortalities.

When SARS spreads, it is mostly through breathing in droplets transported through the air when someone with SARS coughs or sneezes. (Source: GreenFacts)


Shigella dysentery

Shigella is a type of bacteria that are a major cause of diarrhoea and dysentery – diarrhoea with blood and mucus in the stools – throughout the world.

The bacteria are transmitted by ingestion of contaminated food or water, or through person-to-person contact. In the body, they can invade and destroy the cells lining the large intestine, causing mucosal ulceration and bloody diarrhoea

Apart from diarrhoea, symptoms of Shigella infection include fever, abdominal cramps, and rectal pain. Most patients recover without complications within seven days.

Shigellosis can be treated with antibiotics, although some strains have developed drug resistance. (Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO Shigella  )


A highly contagious disease caused by a type of poxvirus; symptoms usually include fever, severe back pain and a blistery-like rash. [Smallpox is transmitted from person to person by infected aerosols and air droplets.]

(Source: Medical Center of the University of Chicago Glossary - Travel Medicine  )


Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

"Poverty reduction and sustainable development are the principal tasks of the SDC. To facilitate the achievement of these goals, the SDC focuses on various thematic priorities. In each thematic domain, a sub-goal is targeted while ever keeping in mind the fact that the priority themes are intimately linked to one another." (Source: SDC website )


Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium, most commonly Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It affects tissues in the human body, mainly the lungs (pulmonary tuberculosis). It causes small tumors that destroy the tissue.

Symptoms include cough, fatigue, weight loss, difficulty breathing, and fever. (Source: GreenFacts)


United Nations System Influenza Coordination (UNSIC)

"The office of the UN System Influenza Coordination  (UNSIC) has been created within the UN Development Group to help ensure that the UN system responds to national, regional and global challenges in relation to influenza. The primary purpose of this office is to ensure cooperation and coordination within the UN system in support of different initiatives underway to address the avian flu epidemic and the threat of a human pandemic." (Source: UNSIC website  )


A virus is a small organism which can infect other biological organisms.

Viruses can only reproduce by invading and taking over cells as they lack the cellular machinery for self reproduction.

They cause diseases in human beings, animals, plants and bacteria.

Examples of human diseases caused by viruses include the common cold, influenza, small pox, AIDS, and cold sores. (Source: GreenFacts)


West Nile fever

The West Nile fever is transmitted by mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus; it is endemic to regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Symptoms include headache, fever, gastrointestinal symptoms; and swollen and enlarged lymph nodes. Meningitis, encephalitis and myelitis may also occur. The disease may occasionally be fatal or leave survivors with permanent neurological deficits.

There is no vaccine against West Nile fever and treatment is purely supportive. (Source: GreenFacts, based on Medical Webends West Nile Fever  )

WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network

"The WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network  enables WHO to recommend twice annually the content of the influenza vaccine for the subsequent influenza season (current recommendations.) More than 250 million doses of influenza vaccine are produced annually which contain the WHO recommended influenza strains.

Frequent updating of the influenza vaccine content is necessary as influenza viruses are permanently evolving. Only a vaccine whose virus strains match the circulating influenza viruses will protect recipients efficiently from influenza disease and death.

The WHO Influenza Surveillance Network serves also as a global alert mechanism for the emergence of influenza viruses with pandemic potential. Its activities have contributed greatly to the understanding of influenza epidemiology. The network was established in 1952, after a WHO Expert Committee recommended that through an international network of laboratories, WHO would be able to advise WHO Member States as to “what influenza control measures are useful, useless or harmful”." (Source: WHO Global Influenza Surveillance Network website  )

World Health Organization

"The World Health Organization  (WHO) is the directing and coordinating authority on international health within the United Nations’ system. WHO experts produce health guidelines and standards, and help countries to address public health issues. WHO also supports and promotes health research. Through WHO, governments can jointly tackle global health problems and improve people’s well-being.

193 countries and two associate members are WHO’s membership. They meet every year at the World Health Assembly in Geneva to set policy for the Organization, approve the Organization’s budget, and every five years, to appoint the Director-General. Their work is supported by the 34-member Executive Board, which is elected by the Health Assembly. Six regional committees focus on health matters of a regional nature."

WHO's scientific publications are widely recognized as a reference source.

The WHO has a number of regional offices which address the specific issues of those regions.

WHO World Regional Offices
  WHO African Region  (46 countries)
  WHO European Region  (53 countries)
  WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region  (21 countries)
  WHO Region of the Americas  (35 countries)
  WHO South-East Asia Region  (11 countries)
  WHO Western Pacific Region  (27 countries)
Yellow fever

Yellow fever is an infection caused by the yellow fever virus. It has caused large epidemics in Africa and the Americas.

The infection causes a wide range of disease such as high fever, bleeding into the skin, and necrosis (death) of cells in the kidney and liver, and even death.

Although an effective vaccine has been available for 60 years, the number of people infected over the last two decades has increased and yellow fever is now a serious public health issue again.

(Source: GreenFacts, based on WHO Yellow fever  )

Other articles you might like...
GBO 5 home
Biological diversity (Part 3): challenges 2050
GBO 5 home
Biological diversity (Part 2): the objectives, actions and means at the horizon 2030
GBO 5 home
Biological diversity (Part 1): the context of the Convention
A-Z List
    Themes covered
    Publications A-Z

    Get involved!

    This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!