Bioscience Biotechnology Research Communications

An Open Access International Journal

P-ISSN: 0974-6455 E-ISSN: 2321-4007

Bioscience Biotechnology Research Communications

An Open Access International Journal

Martin Hessling, Jil Feiertag and Katharina Hoenes

Ulm University of Applied Sciences, Institute of Medical Engineering and Mechatronics, Albert-Einstein-Allee 55, D 89081 Ulm, Germany

Corresponding author Email:

Article Publishing History

Received: 24/03/2017

Accepted After Revision: 01/06/2017


A list of the globally most important pathogens is generated based on the causes of death statistics published in the Global Burden Disease study 2015. Pathogens are assigned to the specified diseases as far as possible. Difficulties arises because the death provoking pathogens are often unidentified or arise in mixed infections with more than one pathogenic agent. Furthermore it is possible that a single causative microorganism is involved in different diseases. For 1.1 of 8.8 million casualties in 2015 no provoking pathogen could be assigned. The identified pathogens that are assumed to cause more than 5 000 deaths annually are specified.The resulting list starts with Streptococcus pneumoniae, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Human immunodeficiency virus and Plasmodium falciparum. Together they are responsible for an estimated 4.7 million casualties which is more than 50% of all deaths provoked by pathogenic agents in 2015.


Fatal Pathogens, Hi-Virus, Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, Plasmodium Falciparum, Streptococcus Pneumoniae

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Knowledge of the most important diseases is essential for the advancement of public health but sometimes it is still not enough. At least for infectious diseases often a more precise information about the major responsible pathogens is required for future development of medical prevention measures, like vaccination, or disinfection techniques for water, air and food. Every few years the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) publishes a new version of the Global Burden Disease study (GBD) with a vast amount of information on the global health situation. Among this data statistics of cause-specific mortality can be found, including the number of deaths caused by different infections that totals almost 9 million casualties (Wang et al., 2016a). The danger of premature death is significantly higher in the developing world than in the industrialized countries and according to the data, children under the age of 5 are particularly at risk.

These data are not general knowledge, even among health professionals. Due to vast changes in the last decade caused by effective sanitary and medical measures like vaccination programs, the worldwide situation and therefore the death statistics underwent distinct alteration. Another reason is the large amount of existing data that impedes the possibility to simply gather an overview. Lastly the data provided by different organizations within the last few years seems to be slightly contradictory. The numbers of the UN / Unesco (United Nations, 2013) give the impression that every 20 seconds a child below 5 years dies of diarrhea caused by contaminated water which would result in almost 1.6 million dead children per year and would make diarrhea the globally most important disease. In another wording UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked about more than 800 000 children annually dying of diarrhea (UN Secretary-General, 2013)which would still make it the most important disease at least for children below 5 years.

These numbers, that can be found in official brochures and speeches, are difficult to retrace and they are in contrast to lower values in the Global Burden Disease study 2010 (Liu et al., 2012) and the even more lower numbers in the Global Burden Disease studies of 2013 (Murray et al., 2015) and 2015 (Wang et al., 2016a). This mentioned GBD 2015 study is not only newest but it is also much more detailed and better documented than the UN documents and has passed quality criteria like peer review processes. In conclusion the GBD 2015 study is most probably the most reliable data source on causes of death for infections and other diseases.

Due to enhanced medical treatment, including vaccination and improved sanitation and drinking water supply the number of casualties – published in the different Global Disease Studies – has fortunately decreased for many causes of death within the last decade. To continue this positive development more information on the causes of death would be helpful. Concerning diseases this means identifying the provoking pathogens. For some infections caused by a known single microorganism this does not represent a problem, but among the most important illnesses like diarrhea and lower respiratory tract infections there are many potential pathogens generating similar symptoms and sometimes even co-infections caused by more than one pathogen occur.

The importance of this knowledge is self-evident for medical treatment like the prescription of antibiotics. But it is also crucial for technical developments like the application of UV-C water disinfection for diarrhea prevention in the Developing Countries, one of the topics of our working group (Hessling et al., 2016). Diarrhea could be provoked by bacteria like Vibrio cholera or Escherichia coli or viruses like rotavirus or adenovirus. To reduce the concentration of Vibrio cholerae by three orders of magnitude a UV-C irradiation dose of about 2.2 J/cm2 would be necessary. To achieve the same result for Escherichia coli 5 – 10 J/cm2 are required and for rotavirus or adenovirus it would be even25 J/cmand 100 J/cm2, respectively (Chevrefils and Caron, 2006). This clearly shows that not only medication but also technical developments would actually benefit from knowing the most important pathogens.

Material and Methods

The imaginable approach to create a listing of pathogens and their number of global casualties by looking for all known pathogens and count the deaths they provoked is almost impossible because of two reasons: 1.) There is the large number of 1400 known human pathogenic species (Nature Reviews Microbiology, 2011) and 2.) information on the number of deaths doesn´t globally exist for most of them.

Fortunately there is the Global Burden Disease Study 2015 with information on the world wide health situation compiled, evaluated and analyzed by a large number of experts. Among the provided data are statistics on the global numbers of deaths caused by different diseases (Wang et al., 2016a). The values are rather estimations than exact indications but nevertheless probably the most accurate, current available numbers and therefore they are taken as fixed basis for this investigation. As far as necessary and possible missing data is supplemented by studies published within the last 10 years.

In a first step all diseases mentioned in (Wang et al., 2016a), that are provoked by at least one pathogen are identified and in a second step the responsible pathogens and their assumed share of casualties is elaborated (Table 1). This is not always straight forward, because of complications like incomplete data and due to co-infections by more than one pathogen.

Tuberculosis and Aids

Tuberculosis and AIDS are among the most widespread infectious diseases with loss of life result. Tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis and is responsible for more than 1.1 million deaths in 2015. AIDS claimed almost 1.2 million casualties in the same period (Wang et al., 2016a), but the explicit assignment to a specific pathogen is somewhat more complex compared to Tuberculosis. AIDS is provoked by the HI-virus but the patients die because of co-infections like tuberculosis or pneumoniae or other diseases. Nevertheless the GBD 2015 study assigns these casualties to AIDS and this procedure is continued here, wherefore these deaths are assigned to the HI-virus.

Diarrheal Diseases and Lower Respiratory Tract Infections

In 2015 diarrheal diseases resulted in 1.3 million casualties (Wang et al., 2016a). They are caused by a variety of viral and bacterial pathogens that cannot always be identified. The GBD 2015 supplement (Wang et al., 2016b) provides some insight in 72% of the cases. Most important is the rotavirus with about 200 000 casualties but in almost 370 000 cases the provoking agents remain unidentified. By conducting a literature research on typical diarrheal pathogens and their share of infections and causes of deaths in other recently published studies about 80 000 of these cases are assigned to Astrovirus, Giardia lamblia and Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Table 1), but for 290 000 casualties no probably provoking pathogen could be nominated.

Table 1: Diseases listed in GBD 2015, with number of casualties and responsible pathogens and their estimated share of cases of deaths.
Disease Total casualties [Thousands] Pathogen(s) Estimated share [%] Estimated casualties [Thousands] Reference / Remark
Lower respiratory infections 2736.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Pneumococcal pneumonia Strectococcus pneumoniae 55.4 1516.1 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Mycoplasma pneumonia Mycoplasma pneumoniae 10 273.7 (Arnold et al., 2007; Cilloniz and Torres Antonio, 2016; Loebinger and Wilson, 2012) (mean value)
Legionnaires’ disease Legionella spp. 5.3 145.0 (Arnold et al., 2007; Cilloniz and Torres Antonio, 2016; Loebinger and Wilson, 2012) (mean value)
Influenza Influenza virus 3 82.1 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Respiratory syncytial virus pneumonia Respiratory syncytial virus 3 82.1 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Staphylococcus aureus infection Staphylococcus aureus 2.2 60.2 (Cilloniz and Torres Antonio, 2016; Loebinger and Wilson, 2012; Scott et al., 2008) (mean value)
H Influenzae type b pneumonia Haemophilus influenzae type b 2.1 57.5 (Wang et al., 2016b)
unknown etiology 19 520.0
Diarrhoe 1312.1  
Rotaviral enteritis Rotavirus 15.2 199.4 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Shigellosis Shigella spp. 12.5 164.0 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Other salmonella infections Salmonella spp. 6.9 90.5 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Enterotoxigenic E. coli infection Enterotoxigenic E. coli 5.6 73.5 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Adenovirus Adenovirus 5.4 70.9 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Cholera Vibrio cholerae 5.2 68.2 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Amoebiasis Entamoebea histolytica 5.2 68.2 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Cryptosporidis Cryptosporidium 4.9 64.3 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Aeromonas Aeromonas spp. 4.3 56.4 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Astrovirus infection Astrovirus 3.0 39.4 (Desselberger and Gray, 2013; Elyan et al., 2014; Higgins et al., 2012; Lanata et al., 2013)
Campylobacter enteritis Campylobacter spp. 2.9 38.1 GBD 2015
Giardiasis Giardia lamblia 2.7 35.4 Mean Value of in- and outpatients in (Fischer Walker et al., 2010; Lanata et al., 2013)
Norovirus Norovirus 2.3 30.2 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Enteropathogenic E. coli infection Enteropathogenic E. coli 0.9 11.8 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Chlostridium difficile Chlostridium difficile 0.7 9.2 (Wang et al., 2016b)
Vibrio parahaemolyticus Vibrio parahaemolyticus 0.4 5.2 (Fischer Walker et al., 2010)
unknown etiology 21.9 287.3

For lower respiratory tract infections, the data situation is worse in several aspects. They demand the most death victims worldwide. In 2015 these were 2.7 million, with 1.5 million casualties caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae alone. But the elucidation of the remaining cases is even more difficult compared to the diarrheal diseases, because for lower respiratory tract infections there are 100 possible pathogens (Graffelman et al., 2004) and the GBD supplement provides only information on three of them. For three other notorious known pathogens an estimated guess can be performed by a literature study, but the cause of death remains unsolved for more than half a million deceased persons.

AIDS 1192.6 Human immunodeficiency virus 100 1192.6 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Tuberculosis 1112.6 Mycobacterium tuberculosis 100 1112.6 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Malaria 730.5   (Wang et al., 2016a)
Plasmodium falciparum 99 723.2 (World Health Organization, 2016)
Plasmodium vivax 1 7.3 (World Health Organization, 2016)
Meningitis 379.2   (Wang et al., 2016a)
Pneumococcal meningitis Strecptococcus pneumonia 30.0 113.8 (Wang et al., 2016a)
H. influenzae type b meningitis Haemophilus influenzae type b 18.9 71.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Meningococcal meningitis Neisseria meningitidis 19.3 73.2 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Listeriosis Listeria monocytogenes 8.0 30.3 (Loeb et al., 2011; Pleger, 2011; Zueter and Zaiter, 2015)
Group B Streptococcus 12.5 47.4 (Pleger, 2011; Zueter and Zaiter, 2015)
unknown etiology 11.3 42.8
Liver cancer due to hepatitis B 263.1 Hepatitis B virus 100 263.1 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Intestinal infection 178.5   (Wang et al., 2016a)
Typhus Salmonella typhi 83.3 148.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Paratyphus Salmonella paratyphi 16.3 29.1 (Wang et al., 2016a)
unknown etiology 0.4 0.7
Encephalitis 149.5 unknown etiology 100 149500.0 (Wang et al., 2016a)probably mostly (herpes simplex) viruses(Davies et al., 2006; Glaser et al., 2006)
Liver cancer due to hepatitis C 137.8 Hepatitis C virus 100 137.8 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Syphilis 106.8 Treponema pallidum 100 106.8 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Hepatitis 105.8   (Wang et al., 2016a)
Hepatitis A Hepatitis A virus 10.6 11.2 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Hepatitis B Hepatitis B virus 61.8 65.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Hepatitis C Hepatitis C virus 2.4 2.5 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Hepatitis E Hepatitis E virus 25.2 26.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Measles 73.4 Measles virus (rubeola virus?) 100 73.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Whooping cough 58.7 Bordetella pertussis 100 58.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Tetanus 56.7 Clostridium tetani 100 56.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Leishmaniasis 24.2 Leishmania spp. 100 24.2 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Dengue fever 18.4 Dengue virus 100 18.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Rabies 17.4 Rabies virus 100 17.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Chags disease 8 Trypanosoma cruzi 100 8.0 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Varicella and herpes zoster 6.4 Varicella-Zoster-virus 100 6.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Ebola virus disease 5.5 Ebola virus 100 5.5 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Yellow fever 5.1 Yellow fever virus 100 5.1 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Schistosomiasis 4.4 Schistosoma spp. 100 4.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Otitis media 3.9 unknown etiology 100 3.9 Most important pathogens: Respiratory syncytical virus, Corona virus, Streptococcus pneumoniae but in most cases viral-bacterial co-infections (Massa
et al., 2009)
African trypanosomiasis 3.5 Trypanosoma brucei 100 3.5 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Upper respiratory infections 3.1 unknown etiology 100 3.1 Most cases probably caused by (rhino-) viruses (Dasaraju and Liu, 1996)
Intestinal nematode infections 2.7 Acariasis 100 2.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Diphteria 2.1 Corynebacterium diphtheriae 100 2.1 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Cystic echinococcosis 1.2 Echinococcus granulosus sensu lato 100 1.2 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Gonococcal infection 0.7 Neisseria gonorrhoeae 100 0.7 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Cysticercosis 0.4 Taenia solium 100 0.4 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Chlamydial infection 0.2 Chlamydia trachomatis 100 0.2 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Other infectious diseases 119.6 unknown etiology 100 119.6 (Wang et al., 2016a)
Total number of casualties 8820.8
Cases of unknown etiology 1127.0

Other Infections

Concerning other infections Malaria and Meningitis are the next most important diseases with a total of more than 1.2 million annual casualties but only 50 000 cases of unknown etiologies. For some infections, like encephalitis, no pathogen share could be assigned at all, but the absolute number is at least smaller compared to unsolved respiratory infections or diarrheal diseases.

Results and Discussion

The total number of pathogen casualties in Table 1 is 8.8 million. For about 1.1 million thereof no provoking pathogen could be identified, but for 7.7 million an assumed pathogen was assigned. The most important pathogen is Streptococcus pneumonia with an estimated 1.6 million annual casualties. Subsequent representatives in the list of most deadly pathogens are Human immunodeficiency virusMycobacterium tuberculosis and Plasmodium falciparum, causing1.2, 1.1 and 0.7 million further deaths in 2015. These four pathogens claim more than 50% of all 8.8 million casualties. A list containing all pathogens (responsible for more than 5000 casualties) is displayed in Table 2.

Table 2: Pathogens and estimated number of deaths for 2015
Pathogen(s) Estimated casualties [Thousands]
Streptococcus pneumoniae 1629.9
Human immunodeficiency virus 1192.6
Mycobacterium tuberculosis 1112.6
Plasmodium falciparum 723.2
Mycoplasma pneumoniae 273.7
Hepatitis B virus 328.5
Rotavirus 199.4
Shigella spp. (without S. typhi and S. paratyphi) 164.0
Salmonella typhi 148.7
Legionella spp. 145.0
Hepatitis C virus 140.3
Haemophilus influenzae type b 129.1
Treponema pallidum 106.8
Salmonella spp. 90.5
Influenza virus 82.1
Respiratory syncytial virus 82.1
Enterotoxigenic E. coli 73.5
Measles virus 73.4
Neisseria meningitidis 73.2
Adenovirus 70.9
Vibrio cholerae 68.2
Entamoebea histolytica 68.2
Cryptosporidium 64.3
Staphylococcus aureus 60.2
Bordetella pertussis 58.7
Clostridium tetani 56.7
Aeromonas spp. 56.4
Group B Streptococcus 47.4
Astrovirus 39.4
Campylobacter spp. 38.1
Giardia lamblia 35.4
Listeria monocytogenes 30.3
Norovirus 30.2
Salmonella paratyphi 29.1
Hepatitis E virus 26.7
Leishmania spp. 24.2
Dengue virus 18.4
Rabies virus 17.4
Enteropathogenic E. coli 11.8
Hepatitis A virus 11.2
Chlostridium difficile 9.2
Trypanosoma cruzi 8.0
Plasmodium vivax 7.3
Varicella-Zoster-virus 6.4
Ebola virus 5.5
Vibrio parahaemolyticus 5.2
Yellow fever virus 5.1

It might be surprising, that some of the most well-known notorious diarrheal pathogens like Vibrio cholerae or E. coli seem to be of minor importance. Reasons might be the plurality of other diarrhea provoking agents, especially rotavirus as well as the enhancement of worldwide sanitary measures and improved drinking water supplies within the last decades.

Finally it should be emphasized, that all these numbers are estimations lacking high precision. The GBD 2015 values providing the basis for this evaluation were regarded as fixed and flawless, but actually they have large uncertainties and the same is true for the complementations and estimations we provided. Nevertheless, to our knowledge these numbers are the best and most precise that exist for this kind of discussion.

Conflict of Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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