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What are Notifiable Diseases?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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In medicine, most people have a presumption of privacy, at most times. Doctor-patient confidentiality is a hallmark of treatment, assuring that people will head to the doctor when they’re ill and get the medical care they need. On the other hand, some illnesses are so severe and have such great risk of spreading or posing threat to public health that a physician may waive confidentiality. When certain diseases are present, doctors may need to notify state or country authorities in order to take steps necessary to protect the public. These are called notifiable diseases, and type of disease that makes such a list may vary by country.

In places like the US and the UK, it’s very easy to find lists of illnesses that are notifiable. In the US the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) keeps a running tally of all illnesses that doctors should report. Usually they don’t just report the notifiable diseases, but also must give information about the patient name and contact details. Other information that might be required includes outcome of treating the disease. It gets a little confusing in the states because reporting is done to state public health, which may or may not be obligated to report its statistics to the CDC, even though the CDC is responsible for collating data on prevalence of certain notifiable diseases.

As stated, lists of these diseases tend to vary by country. They usually have in common that they tend to be highly infectious; in other words, the illnesses do pose risk to others and can be communicated to them. Another way lists of diseases are derived has to do with the prevalence of an illness. When an infectious disease threatens to become more common, it usually makes a notifiable diseases list. Since statistics can change, lists may change on a regular basis.

Many notifiable diseases will fail to cause any embarrassment, if reported. Reporting a case of mumps tends not to represent a severe breach of confidentiality, particularly when that case occurs in a child. Instead, the data can be useful to look at vaccination patterns and/or prevalence of the illness despite vaccine immunity. It might also confirm outbreaks of a relatively rare illness where vaccination is common.

Certain notifiable diseases fall outside this realm, and incorporate many illnesses that are sexually transmitted, including HIV, syphilis, and others. One concern about creating mandatory reporting laws for these illnesses is that patients can feel like privacy is truly endangered. It should help to know that most states do a great deal to protect the privacy of patients, allowing very few people to have access to notifiable diseases reports. Still, some people might avoid or delay care of certain illnesses because their private status is at risk.

On the other hand, most public health agencies would contend that having a list of notifiable diseases is of great importance to public health. Outbreaks of certain types of flu, animal borne illnesses that may sicken human populations or kill livestock, and the presence of highly communicable diseases needs to be known to protect the public. Warning can be given to others who have been directly exposed to someone with a notifiable disease and public agencies can take preventative steps to prevent widespread outbreaks of illness.

Moreover, over time, agencies may track diseases to help determine degree of presence in the population. They can decide how to address illnesses that appear to be occurring with greater frequency.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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