Wisconsin Department of Health warns of mysterious Disease X

MADISON, Wis. (WISC) -- If Ebola, Zika, and this year's deadly strain of the flu aren't enough to worry about, the World Health Organization has added a mysterious new disease to its list of nine viruses that may cause a global epidemic.

It's known as Disease X, and the Wisconsin Department of Health is preparing for the possibility of it hitting Madison.

Contrary to its name, Disease X isn't a newly identified disease. Rather, it's a so-called "known unknown" that could be created by a biological mutation, spawned by a terror attack, or simply spread by accident.

The WHO added Disease X to its list of nine diseases most likely to cause a global pandemic that could kill millions, not to scare people, but to spur public health officials into making sure they are prepared for all threats... not just the predictable ones.

When the Zika virus first emerged and spread quickly in April 2015, it caught doctors and state health officials off-guard. That is why it was so deadly, according to Stephanie Smiley, the director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease at the Wisconsin Department of Health. And it could happen again with Disease X, according to the department.

"It might as well be 'Disease fill in the blank,'" said Smiley. "Because basically, what they're trying to say, is it could be anything. It could be something we don't know yet. It could be some epidemic that could result in many deaths."

The Department of Health has an emergency plan in place, to work with local partners, the health care community, businesses, and anyone who responds to infectious disease outbreaks. The plan works on everything from a natural disaster to a toxic chemical spill.

Part of the emergency plan's mission now is to research and develop a plan to deal with the next health epidemic, Disease X.

"We have outbreaks every day, and people don't necessarily realize that," said Smiley. "Basically what our job is, is to investigate the situation, try to find a source for the disease outbreak, and put steps in place to mitigate the spread of disease."

Smiley said the flu is still the biggest health concern in Madison.

Health department officials say that you can lower your chances of getting the flu, and future diseases, in the same simple way: washing your hands, vaccinating, and staying home when you're sick.

This year is the 100th anniversary of one of the deadliest flu outbreaks in history. The 1918 influenza pandemic infected 500 million people around the world and killed between 50 and 100 million.

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