The National Academies

The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

About This Website


New infectious diseases are continuing to emerge around the world and old ones are appearing in new locations. About a quarter of deaths worldwide—many of them children—are caused by infectious organisms. What’s behind this trend? How can invisible organisms cause such harm? And to what extent has human behavior amplified the problem?

To answer these and other important questions about infectious disease, Americans need dependable, objective, and authoritative information. In their role as advisers to the nation on issues related to science and medicine, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NRC) have conducted numerous studies and workshops on the topic of infectious disease. The information on this site draws from that body of material and on other sources, offering a basic toolkit of facts and concepts to help people understand this complex topic. (See a complete list of the relevant IOM and NRC reports.) A companion print piece to this website can be found here.

One in a Series

Infectious disease is one of a series of topics we will cover in the “What You Need to Know About” program, which includes informational booklets and websites designed to engage readers in current topics in science, engineering, and medicine. These materials provide accurate information about complex issues that affect us as individuals and as a nation. Sound knowledge about such issues is critical if citizens are to evaluate debates and make informed decisions in our increasingly technological world.


The information on this site was derived from relevant reports and studies by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The site is the companion to a publication written by Madeline Drexler, a Boston-based journalist specializing in science, medicine, and public health. Drexler is author of Emerging Epidemics: The Menace of New Infections (Penguin, 2010). She is editor of the Harvard Public Health Review and is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. 

The text was edited by Michael Jensen, John Kotcher, Stephen Mautner, and Terrell Smith in collaboration with Eileen Choffnes, director of the Institute of Medicine's Forum on Microbial Threats.

Special thanks to James W. Curran, M.D.; James M. Hughes, M.D.; Stanley Falkow; and Mary E. Wilson, M.D., for their careful review of the printed booklet upon which the content of this site is based.

The creation of this website and the publication of the accompanying booklet were supported by a generous grant from the Life Technologies Foundation.

The site was designed and developed by Threespot Media, LLC.

Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

Illustration Credits

All artwork by Threespot Media, Inc., and copyrighted by the National Academy of Sciences. For permission information regarding the use of any illustrations on this website, please contact us.

Notes on Data Sources

The data cited on this website were drawn largely from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO)



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