In medicine, infectious disease or communicable disease is disease caused by a biological agent (e.g. virus, bacterium or parasite), as opposed to physical (e.g. burns) or chemical (e.g. intoxication) causes.
Agents and vectors
Infectious disease requires an agent and a mode of transmission (or vector). A good example is malaria, which is mainly caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum but does not affect humans unless the vector, the Anopheles mosquito, is around to introduce the parasite into the human bloodstream.
The vector does not have to be biological. Many infectious diseases are transmitted by droplets which enter the airway (e.g. common cold and tuberculosis).
The science of infectious disease
One way of proving that a given disease is "infectious", is to satisfy Koch's postulates (Robert Koch), which demand that the infectious agent is identified in patients and not in controls, and that patients who contract the agent also develop the disease. These postulates were tried and tested in the discovery of Mycobacteria as the cause for tuberculosis. Often, it is not possible to meet some of the criteria, even in diseases that are quite clearly infectious. For example, Treponema pallidum, the causative spirochete of syphilis, cannot be cultured.
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).
Diagnosis is initially by medical history and physical examination, and imaging (such as X-rays), but the principal tool in infectious disease is the microbiological culture. In a culture, a growth medium is provided for a particular agent. After inoculation of a specimen of diseased fluid or tissue onto the medium, it is determined whether bacterial growth occurs. This works for a number of bacteria, for example Staphylococcus or Streptococcus.
Certain agents cannot be cultured, for example the above-mentioned Treponema pallidum and most viruses. The first serological markers were developed to diagnose syphilis (the Wassermann test, later replaced by the VDRL and TPHA tests). Serology involves detecting the antibodies against an infectious agent in the patient's blood. In immunocompromised patients (e.g. AIDS), serology can be troublesome, because the antibody reaction is blunted.
A more recent development is direct detection of viral proteins and/or DNA in blood or secretions. This can be done by PCR (polymerase chain reaction), involving the amplification of viral DNA and its subsequent detection with anti-DNA probes.
When a culture has proven to be positive, the sensitivity (or, conversely, the antibiotic resistance) of an agent can be determined by exposing it to test doses of antibiotic. This way, the microbiologist determines how sensitive the target bacterium is to a certain antibiotic. This is usually reported as being: Sensitive, Intermediate or Resistant. The antibiogram can then be used to determine optimal therapy for the patient. This can reduce the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics and lead to a decrease in antibiotic resistance.