Infectious pathologies are usually qualified as contagious diseases (also called communicable diseases) due to their potentiality of transmission from one person or species to another. Transmission of an infectious disease may occur through one or more of diverse pathways including physical contact with infected individuals. These infecting agents may also be transmitted through liquids, food, body fluids, contaminated objects, airborne inhalation, or through vector-borne spread.
The term infectivity describes the ability of an organism to enter, survive and multiply in the host, while the infectiousness of a disease indicates the comparative ease with which the disease is transmitted to other hosts. An infection however, is not synonymous with an infectious disease, as an infection may not cause important clinical symptoms or impair host function.
Primary pathogens cause disease as a result of their presence or activity within the normal, healthy host, and their intrinsic virulence (the severity of the disease they cause) is, in part, a necessary consequence of their need to reproduce and spread. Many of the most common primary pathogens of humans only infect humans, however many serious diseases are caused by organisms acquired from the environment or which infect non-human hosts.
Organisms which cause an infectious disease in a host with depressed resistance are classified as opportunistic pathogens. Opportunistic disease may be caused by microbes that are ordinarily in contact with the host, such as pathogenic bacteria or fungi in the gastrointestinal or the upper respiratory tract, and they may also result from (otherwise innocuous) microbes acquired from other hosts (as in Clostridium difficile colitis) or from the environment as a result of traumatic introduction (as in surgical wound infections or compound fractures). An opportunistic disease requires impairment of host defenses, which may occur as a result of genetic defects (such as Chronic granulomatous disease), exposure to antimicrobial drugs or immunosuppressive chemicals (as might occur following poisoning or cancer chemotherapy), exposure to ionizing radiation, or as a result of an infectious disease with immunosuppressive activity (such as with measles, malaria or HIV disease). Primary pathogens may also cause more severe disease in a host with depressed resistance than would normally occur in an immunosufficient host.
One way of proving that a given disease is "infectious", is to satisfy Koch's postulates (first proposed by Robert Koch), which demands that the infectious agent be identified only in patients and not in healthy controls, and that patients who contract the agent also develop the disease. These postulates were first used in the discovery that Mycobacteria species cause tuberculosis. Koch's postulates cannot be met ethically for many human diseases because they require experimental infection of a healthy individual with a pathogen produced as a pure culture. Often, even diseases that are quite clearly infectious do not meet the infectious criteria. For example, Treponema pallidum, the causative spirochete of syphilis, cannot be cultured in vitro - however the organism can be cultured in rabbit testes. It is less clear that a pure culture comes from an animal source serving as host than it is when derived from microbes derived from plate culture. Epidemiology is another important tool used to study disease in a population. For infectious diseases it helps to determine if a disease outbreak is sporadic (occasional occurrence), endemic (regular cases often occurring in a region), epidemic (an unusually high number of cases in a region), or pandemic (a global epidemic).
Transmission of infectious diseases may also involve a "vector". Vectors may be mechanical or biological. A mechanical vector picks up an infectious agent on the outside of its body and transmits it in a passive manner. An example of a mechanical vector is a housefly, which lands on cow dung, contaminating its appendages with bacteria from the feces, and then lands on food prior to consumption. The pathogen never enters the body of the fly. In contrast, biological vectors harbor pathogens within their bodies and deliver pathogens to new hosts in an active manner, usually a bite. Biological vectors are often responsible for serious blood-borne diseases, such as malaria, viral encephalitis, Chagas disease, Lyme disease and African sleeping sickness. Biological vectors are usually, though not exclusively, arthropods, such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and lice. Vectors are often required in the life cycle of a pathogen. A common strategy, used to control vector borne infectious diseases, is to interrupt the life cycle of a pathogen, by killing the vector.
The relationship between virulence and transmission is complex, and has important consequences for the long term evolution of a pathogen. Since it takes many generations for a microbe and a new host species to co-evolve, an emerging pathogen may hit its earliest victims especially hard. It is usually in the first wave of a new disease that death rates are highest. If a disease is rapidly fatal, the host may die before the microbe can get passed along to another host. However, this cost may be overwhelmed by the short term benefit of higher infectiousness if transmission is linked to virulence, as it is for instance in the case of cholera (the explosive diarrhea aids the bacterium in finding new hosts) or many respiratory infections (sneezing and coughing create infectious aerosols).
One of the ways to prevent or slow down the transmission of infectious diseases is to recognize the different characteristics of various diseases. Some critical disease characteristics that should be evaluated include virulence, distance traveled by victims, and level of contagiousness. The human strains of Ebola virus, for example, incapacitate its victims extremely quickly and kills them soon after. As a result, the victims of this disease do not have the opportunity to travel very far from the initial infection zone. Also, this virus must spread through skin lesions or permeable membranes such as the eye. Thus, the initial stage of Ebola is not very contagious since its victims experience only internal hemorrhaging. As a result of the above features, the spread of Ebola is very rapid and usually stays within a relatively confined geographical area. In contrast, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) kills its victims very slowly by attacking their immune system.  As a result, a lot of its victims transmit the virus to many others before even realizing that they are carrying the disease. Also, the relatively low virulence allows its victims to travel long distances, increasing the likelihood of an epidemic.
Another effective way to decrease the transmission rate of infectious diseases is to recognize the effects of small-world networks.  In epidemics, there are often extensive interactions within hubs or groups of infected individuals and other interactions within discrete hubs of susceptible individuals. Despite the low interaction between discrete hubs, the disease can jump to and spread in a susceptible hub via a single or few interactions with an infected hub. Thus, infection rates in small-world networks can be reduced somewhat if interactions between individuals within infected hubs are eliminated (Figure 1). However, infection rates can be drastically reduced if the main focus is on the prevention of transmission jumps between hubs. The use of needle exchange programs in areas with a high density of drug users with HIV is an example of the successful implementation of this treatment method.  Another example is the use of ring culling or vaccination of potentially susceptible livestock in adjacent farms to prevent the spread of the foot-and-mouth virus in 2001.
Specific identification of an infectious agent is usually only determined when such identification can aid in the treatment or prevention of the disease, or to advance knowledge of the course of an illness prior to the development of effective therapeutic or preventative measures. For example, in the early 1980s, prior to the appearance of AZT for the treatment of AIDS, the course of the disease was closely followed by monitoring the composition of patient blood samples, even though the outcome would not offer the patient any further treatment options. In part, these studies on the appearance of HIV in specific communities permitted the advancement of hypotheses as to the route of transmission of the virus. By understanding how the disease was transmitted, resources could be targeted to the communities at greatest risk in campaigns aimed at reducing the number of new infections. The specific serological diagnostic identification, and later genotypic or molecular identification, of HIV also enabled the development of hypotheses as to the temporal and geographical origins of the virus, as well as a myriad of other hypothesis. The development of molecular diagnostic tools have enabled physicians and researchers to monitor the efficacy of treatment with anti-retroviral drugs. Molecular diagnostics are now commonly used to identify HIV in healthy people long before the onset of illness and have been used to demonstrate the existence of people who are genetically resistant to HIV infection. Thus, while there still is no cure for AIDS, there is great therapeutic and predictive benefit to identifying the virus and monitoring the virus levels within the blood of infected individuals, both for the patient and for the community at large.
Microbiological culture is a principal tool used to diagnose infectious disease. In a microbial culture, a growth medium is provided for a specific agent. A sample taken from potentially diseased tissue or fluid is then tested for the presence of an infectious agent able to grow within that medium. Most pathogenic bacteria are easily grown on nutrient agar, a form of solid medium that supplies carbohydrates and proteins necessary for growth of a bacterium, along with copious amounts of water. A single bacterium will grow into a visible mound on the surface of the plate called a colony, which may be separated from other colonies or melded together into a "lawn". The size, color, shape and form of a colony is characteristic of the bacterial species, its specific genetic makeup (its strain), and the environment which supports its growth. Other ingredients are often added to the plate to aid in identification. Plates may contain substances that permit the growth of some bacteria and not others, or that change color in response to certain bacteria and not others. Bacteriological plates such as these are commonly used in the clinical identification of infectious bacteria. Microbial culture may also be used in the identification of viruses: the medium in this case being cells grown in culture that the virus can infect, and then alter or kill. In the case of viral identification, a region of dead cells results from viral growth, and is called a "plaque". Eukaryotic parasites may also be grown in culture as a means of identifying a particular agent.
In the absence of suitable plate culture techniques, some microbes require culture within live animals. Bacteria such as Mycobacterium leprae and T. pallidum can be grown in animals, although serological and microscopic techniques make the use of live animals unnecessary. Viruses are also usually identified using alternatives to growth in culture or animals. Some viruses may be grown in embryonated eggs. Another useful identification method is Xenodiagnosis, or the use of a vector to support the growth of an infectious agent. Chaga's disease is the most significant example, because it is difficult to directly demonstrate the presence of the causative agent, Trypanosoma cruzi in a patient, which therefore makes it difficult to definitively make a diagnosis. In this case, xenodiagnosis involves the use of the vector of the Chaga's agent T. cruzi, an uninfected triatomine bug (subfamily Triatominae), which takes a blood meal from a person suspected of having been infected. The bug is later inspected for growth of T. cruzi within its gut.
Other microscopic procedures may also aid in identifying infectious agents. Almost all cells readily stain with a number of basic dyes due to the electrostatic attraction between negatively charged cellular molecules and the positive charge on the dye. A cell is normally transparent under a microscope, and using a stain increases the contrast of a cell with its background. Staining a cell with a dye such as Giemsa stain or crystal violet allows a microscopist to describe its size, shape, internal and external components and its associations with other cells. The response of bacteria to different staining procedures is used in the taxonomic classification of microbes as well. Two methods, the Gram stain and the acid-fast stain, are the standard approaches used to classify bacteria and to diagnosis of disease. The Gram stain identifies the bacterial groups Firmicutes and Actinobacteria, both of which contain many significant human pathogens. The acid-fast staining procedure identifies the Actinobacterial genera Mycobacterium and Nocardia.
The isolation of enzymes from infected tissue can also provide the basis of a biochemical diagnosis of an infectious disease. For example, humans can make neither RNA replicases nor reverse transcriptase, and the presence of these enzymes are characteristic of specific types of viral infections. The ability of the viral protein hemagglutinin to bind red blood cells together into a detectable matrix may also be characterized as a biochemical test for viral infection, although strictly speaking hemagglutinin is not an enzyme and has no metabolic function.
Serological methods are highly sensitive, specific and often extremely rapid tests used to identify microorganisms. These tests are based upon the ability of an antibody to bind specifically to an antigen. The antigen, usually a protein or carbohydrate made by an infectious agent, is bound by the antibody. This binding then sets off a chain of events that can be visibly obvious in various ways, dependent upon the test. For example, "Strep throat" is often diagnosed within minutes, and is based on the appearance of antigens made by the causative agent, S. pyogenes, that is retrieved from a patients throat with a cotton swab. Serological tests, if available, are usually the preferred route of identification, however the tests are costly to develop and the reagents used in the test often require refrigeration. Some serological methods are extremely costly, although when commonly used, such as with the "strep test", they can be inexpensive.
Thus, the technological ability to detect any infectious agent rapidly and specifically are currently available. The only remaining blockades to the use of PCR as a standard tool of diagnosis are in its cost and application, neither of which is insurmountable. The diagnosis of a few diseases will not benefit from the development of PCR methods, such as some of the clostridial diseases (tetanus and botulism). These diseases are fundamentally biological poisonings by relatively small numbers of infectious bacteria that produce extremely potent neurotoxins. A significant proliferation of the infectious agent does not occur, this limits the ability of PCR to detect the presence of any bacteria.
Infection with most pathogens does not result in death of the host and the offending organism is ultimately cleared after the symptoms of the disease have waned. This process requires immune mechanisms to kill or inactivate the inoculum of the pathogen. Specific acquired immunity against infectious diseases may be mediated by antibodies and/or T lymphocytes. Immunity mediated by these two factors may be manifested by:
Resistance to infection (immunity) may be acquired following a disease, by asymptomatic carriage of the pathogen, by harboring an organism with a similar structure (crossreacting), or by vaccination. Knowledge of the protective antigens and specific acquired host immune factors is more complete for primary pathogens than for opportunistic pathogens.
Immune resistance to an infectious disease requires a critical level of either antigen-specific antibodies and/or T cells when the host encounters the pathogen. Some individuals develop natural serum antibodies to the surface polysaccharides of some agents although they have had little or no contact with the agent, these natural antibodies confer specific protection to adults and are passively transmitted to newborns.
|Rank||Cause of death||Deaths 2002|| Percentage of|
|Deaths 1993||1993 Rank|
|N/A||All infectious diseases||14.7 million||25.9%||16.4 million||32.2%|
|1||Lower respiratory infections||3.9 million||6.9%||4.1 million||1|
|2||HIV/AIDS||2.8 million||4.9%||0.7 million||7|
|3||Diarrheal diseases||1.8 million||3.2%||3.0 million||2|
|4||Tuberculosis (TB)||1.6 million||2.7%||2.7 million||3|
|5||Malaria||1.3 million||2.2%||2.0 million||4|
|6||Measles||0.6 million||1.1%||1.1 million||5|
|7||Pertussis||0.29 million||0.5%||0.36 million||7|
|8||Tetanus||0.21 million||0.4%||0.15 million||12|
|9||Meningitis||0.17 million||0.3%||0.25 million||8|
|10||Syphilis||0.16 million||0.3%||0.19 million||11|
|11||Hepatitis B||0.10 million||0.2%||0.93 million||6|
|12-17||Tropical diseases (6)||0.13 million||0.2%||0.53 million||9, 10, 16-18|
| Note: Other causes of death include maternal and perinatal conditions (5.2%), nutritional deficiencies (0.9%),|
noncommunicable conditions (58.8%), and injuries (9.1%).
With most new infectious diseases, some human action is involved, changing the environment so that an existing microbe can take up residence in a new niche. When that happens, a pathogen that had been confined to a remote habitat appears in a new or wider region, or a microbe that had infected only animals suddenly begins to cause human disease.
Several human activities have led to the emergence and spread of new diseases, see also Globalization and Disease:
Abū Alī ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases in the early 11th century. He introduced quarantine as a means of limiting the spread of contagious and infectious diseases in The Canon of Medicine, circa 1020. He also stated that bodily secretion is contaminated by foul foreign earthly bodies before being infected, but he did not view them as primary causes of disease.
When the Black Death bubonic plague reached al-Andalus in the 14th century, Ibn Khatima and Ibn al-Khatib hypothesized that infectious diseases are caused by "contagious entities" which enter the human body. Such ideas became more popular in Europe during the renaissance, particularly through the writing of the Italian monk Girolamo Fracastoro.
An infectious disease team may be alerted when: