At least 18 new diseases have been detected in Bangladesh since the liberation war in 1971, says a report prepared by a former chairman of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Advisory Group of the World Health Organization (WHO).

That means people of Bangladesh suffer from a new disease on average in every three years.

The recent outbreak of coronavirus in China has made Bangladeshi people anxious about the situation. Like other parts of the world, they were alarmed during the outbreaks of swine flu, bird flu, MARS coronavirus and SARS coronavirus. This was because scientists were not aware of the fatalities of the germs of those diseases. The same can be said for coronavirus.

A list of 32 infectious diseases, detected globally since 1970, was presented at the 15th Asian Conference on Diarrhoeal Disease and Nutrition (ASCODD 2020), held in Dhaka on 28-30 January. Bangladesh’s public health expert professor Mahmudur Rahman, also former chairman of the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Advisory Group of the WHO prepared the list. Alongside this, he prepared another list of diseases detected in Bangladesh in the last 50 years.

Mahmudur Rahman also chaired the first committee formed to detect the MARS virus in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Mahmudur Rahman said, “Some of the diseases like infection in nipah virus, HIV, bird flu are completely new. Some of the diseases were dormant for a long time, like anthrax.”

According to the list prepared by Mahmudur Rahman mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis was the first such disease Bangladeshis faced in 1977 while the latest on the list is candidiasis, a fungal disease. Candidiasis is acquired from a fungus Candida Auris by the patients who take treatment at ICU of hospitals in general.

HIV/AIDS, dengue, chikungunya, bird flu, swine flu, nipah, zika are the names of some of the diseases we hear more about. All of these diseases have come to Bangladesh from other countries. There are other less known diseases on the list prepared by professor Mahmudur Rahman, for example norovirus detected in 2013 or leptospirosis found in 2000. Birds are the vector of norovirus while rat’s urine is responsible for the second type of disease.

Detection of new types of diseases is a global phenomenon. Human beings are being infected with what once was a disease of animals, for example swine flu, which was basically a disease of swines. But this disease can be transmitted from person to person now. In some cases, new virus emerges through mutation while some remain dormant in other animals but becomes fatal when it comes in touch of human beings. Nipah virus is an example of this type of virus. Bat is the vector of nipah virus.

There’s no information on how many diseases people were infected with from animals. In a seminar in Dhaka around 10 years ago Peter B Blowland, assistant director to Centre for Global Health of Centre for Disease Control (CDC Atlanta) of the US, said they could identify about 1,400 types of germs that infected people. Around 61 per cent of those germs originated in animal world. In 30 years since 1980 people around the world were infected in 87 new diseases.

Mahmudur Rahman’s list included 32 diseases that were globally discussed about between 1970 and 2019.

Outbreak of novel coronavirus in China in December brought the discussion on infectious disease to the fore. There are various types of coronavirus like SARS, MARS. The WHO has named the novel coronavirus 2019-nCOV. At least 722 people have died of this so far while more than nearly 35,000 people were infected by the new strain, which has spread to over 27 countries outside China.

No vaccine of novel coronavirus has been discovered so far.

Examining Mahmudur Rahman’s list, it was found out that disease originated in America, Africa or Europe spread to Bangladesh within some years. HIV/AIDS was first detected in Africa in 1980. The virus was detected in Bangladesh for the first time in 1989. Nipah took three years to reach Bangladesh after it was first detected in Malaysia in 1998.

Public health specialists and veterinary experts think that diseases are being spread more with people’s increasing contact with animals. Talking with Prothom Alo, Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University’s former vice chancellor Nitish Debnath identified three reasons behind this increase.

Firstly, animals are making more close contact with people as a result of deforestation. Secondly, diseases are being transmitted from animal to human being from agricultural activities. Thirdly, people’s fast movement from places to places as a result of globalisation is precipitating spread of diseases. For instances, ongoing coronavirus broke out in different parts of the world for people’s movement.
Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control & Research’s (IEDCR) director Meerjady Sabrina told Prothom Alo, “We closely observe the situation first and collect information form WHO and take steps according to their suggestion. We train the health workers ensuring their safety. Simultaneously, we create awareness among people.”

"We follow international rules in detection of disease and quarantine process of the affected people. We are maintaining same procedures right now. We follow specific rules once a new patient is detected with disease," she added.

* The report, originally published in print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza and Galib Ashraf