Infectious diseases

What are Infectious diseases?

  • Infectious (communicable) diseases are caused by micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Micro-organisms are not aware of international boundaries, travel and migration of populations. The import and export of goods and foodstuffs make it easy for these diseases to spread.
  • Many infectious diseases are more common amongst children and the elderly as their immune systems tend to be weaker. Most common childhood infections include measles, chickenpox and viral gastroenteritis (diarrhoea and vomiting). The elderly population is more susceptible to flu viruses. It is very important to protect yourself wherever possible by appropriate immunisation and vigorous hygiene measures (e.g. frequent hand washing).
  • Infectious diseases are a burden to society through days off work and school, and a cost to the NHS.
  • Most infectious diseases are easily preventable by effective immunisation, good infection control and prompt public health action.

Some key stats

  • 40 percent of people consult their doctor every year because of an infection
  • Infections account for 70,000 deaths each year
  • Infections put over 150,000 people into hospital each year

(Reference: Getting ahead of the curve. Department of Health 2002)

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Infections that have been in the news

  • H1N1 influenza (Swine flu) – This is an infection, influenza, which is caused by a virus. Influenza viruses can mutate easily and people do not always have immunity against new influenza viruses. In 2009, a new flu virus swept around the world and the Government mobilised the NHS, local authorities and the Health Protection Agency to respond to the pandemic (a pandemic is an outbreak of a, usually new, infection that spreads rapidly and affects more than two continents at the same time). If you think you have the flu, please do not go out, to your GP Surgery or to A& E, stay at home and call NHS Direct for advice on 0845 46 47.
  • MRSA – Meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – an antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infection that is often associated with healthcare settings.
  • C. difficile – Clostridium difficile infection – another bacterial infection associated with healthcare settings. This infection is often associated with inappropriate use of antibiotics.
  • HIV – Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) - It is estimated that 83,000 people have the virus in the UK (2009 data), but nearly one-third of these people may be unaware that they carry the virus. Early access to treatment can delay the progress of the infection to symptomatic acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and therefore early diagnoses are crucial to prolonged survival.
  • Norovirus, also called ‘winter vomiting disease’ generally occurs during the winter months. It is the most frequent cause of infectious gastroenteritis in England and Wales and affects 600,000 to one million people in the United Kingdom every year. Cases of infection and symptoms usually start to appear during the autumn, peaking during January. The symptoms usually last from 12 to 60 hours and will start with the sudden onset of nausea followed by projectile vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Tuberculosis (TB) – Tuberculosis is a major health problem world-wide and there were over 9,000 cases of the disease reported in 2009 in the UK. TB is an infectious disease and it is essential that those people who suffer from this infection are appropriately treated.
  • Sexually transmitted infections – The number of reported sexually transmitted infections are increasing in the UK. There are a number of screening programmes in place to help early diagnoses and access to treatment such as Chlamydia screening for young adults.

Information relating to all these diseases can be found on the HPA website (see external links section below).

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Who deals with infectious diseases in this country?

There are a number of agencies and departments that are responsible for monitoring, surveillance and control of infectious disease in the UK:

  • The Department of Health provides strategic direction for the planning and control of infectious diseases
  • The NHS provides treatment; this includes GPs, hospitals and specialised clinics such as baby immunisation clinics
  • Local Authorities (councils) provide inspection and advice services for food safety and investigate food poisoning outbreaks
  • Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides inspection of premises such as laboratories, factories or water towers (which need to be inspected regularly to prevent Legionnaires' disease)
  • The Health Protection Agency (HPA) provides support and advice to the NHS, Local Authorities and the Department of Health. The HPA also investigates outbreaks of infectious disease and liaises with local authorities on food poisoning investigations.

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How do we deal with infectious diseases in this country?

  • Surveillance: so that we know what disease levels are and can spot outbreaks;
  • Investigation of outbreaks and implementation of control measures to contain outbreaks;
  • Inspections of premises (e.g. food outlets) by local authorities and health and safety executive to ensure hygiene procedures are adhered to and to prevent disease outbreaks;
  • Emergency planning so that large-scale emergencies such as ‘flu pandemics’ can be managed effectively;
  • Some infections are notifiable. This means that when a doctor diagnoses one of these infections (or suspects that someone has one of these infections), they should notify the 'Proper Officer' of the Local Authority within 3 days (or verbally within 24 hours if it is urgent). The Proper Officer is then required to pass the notification on to the Health Protection Agency.

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Page last updated:

April 29, 2022