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

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

An electron micrograph of an influenza virus, showing details of its structure.

Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith/CDC

Viruses

Viruses are tiny, ranging in size from about 20 to 400 nanometers in diameter. Billions can fit on the head of a pin. Some are rod shaped; others are round and 20 sided; and yet others have fanciful forms, with multisided “heads” and cylindrical “tails.”
Viruses are responsible for a wide range of diseases, including the common cold, measles, chicken pox, genital herpes, and influenza.
Viruses are simply packets of nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protein shell and sometimes fatty materials called lipids. Outside a living cell, a virus is a dormant particle, lacking the raw materials for reproduction. Only when it enters a host cell does it go into action, hijacking the cell’s metabolic machinery to produce copies of itself that may burst out of infected cells or simply bud off a cell membrane. This lack of self-sufficiency means that viruses cannot be cultured in artificial media for scientific research or vaccine development; they can only be grown in living cells, fertilized eggs, tissue cultures, or bacteria.
 
Viruses are responsible for a wide range of diseases, including the common cold, measles, chicken pox, genital herpes, and influenza. Many of the emerging infectious diseases, such as AIDS and SARS, are caused by viruses.
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Disease Watchlist

What do you know about infectious disease?

True or False: Most infectious diseases are not impacted by changes in the environment.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    Most infectious diseases are impacted by changes in the environment. Malaria, dengue, and viral encephalitis infections, for example, are highly sensitive to environmental changes.

  • Correct!

    Most infectious diseases are impacted by changes in the environment. Malaria, dengue, and viral encephalitis infections, for example, are highly sensitive to environmental changes.

Infectious Disease Defined

Reservoir

An organism in which a parasite that is pathogenic for some other organism lives and reproduces without harming its host.

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National Academies Press

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