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Communicable diseases

What communicable diseases are and how to reduce their impact

Written by Ted Lankester 2020 Available in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish

Delivering food packages to vulnerable families in Colombia as part of Tearfund’s Covid-19 response. Photo: Edrei Cueto/Tearfund

Delivering food packages to vulnerable families in Colombia as part of Tearfund’s Covid-19 response. Photo: Edrei Cueto/Tearfund

Bina (right) and a friend wash their hands at their school in Nepal. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

From: Communicable diseases – Footsteps 112

How to reduce the spread and impact of diseases that pass from person to person

In one way or another, the tiny virus that causes Covid-19 has affected us all.

Starting in late-2019, many country borders, schools, transport links and businesses were closed in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. Towns and cities fell silent as millions of people were told to stay at home and large gatherings were cancelled. People became fearful for their health and the health of loved ones. Disruption to food supplies, education and jobs has affected economic security and physical and emotional well-being. Sadly, many lives have been lost.

During this pandemic we have seen first hand how quickly a disease can spread from person to person, and the devastation it can cause. We have also seen how communities can work together in new ways for the common good.

Person to person

Covid-19 is one of many communicable diseases. This means it is caused by an infection that can spread from person to person, sometimes without any physical contact. Not all infectious diseases can spread in this way. For example, tetanus does not pass from person to person.

Non-communicable diseases, such as high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes and cancer, are not caused by infections and cannot spread from person to person. You can read more about non-communicable diseases in issue 87 of Footsteps.


Like most challenges the world faces, such as famines, war and floods, it is nearly always the poorest, most vulnerable and less informed who suffer the most. For people who are already struggling to feed themselves and their families, a serious illness such as Ebola or tuberculosis can push them into deeper poverty if they are unable to work or access medical care.

Other impacts include:

Pressure on facilities

During an outbreak of an infectious disease such as Covid-19, health facilities may be overwhelmed and many consultations and operations cancelled. It is essential that, wherever possible, people who become unwell with other serious illnesses such as cancer or heart disease still continue to seek and receive the early diagnosis and treatment they need. Children should also still receive their important vaccinations.

Mental illness

Health and financial concerns, as well as separation from community and family members, can have a negative effect on mental health. Pre-existing conditions may worsen, or people may experience anxiety, depression and other conditions for the first time.


Being told to stay at home for long periods can increase the risk of abuse for both adults and children. Such abuse may go unnoticed if schools, workplaces and other places of safety are closed.


This is a common side effect of serious infectious diseases, particularly ones that communities do not fully understand such as Ebola and Covid-19. False news, conspiracy theories and hostility towards people who are trying to help combat the disease often make the situation worse. The rejection experienced by people who become ill can be worse than the disease itself.


Times of crisis often encourage communities to come together in new ways to support each other and protect the most vulnerable. New alliances are formed as people work together to fight a common threat.

For example, by affecting virtually every country, Covid-19 has stimulated societies and scientists to cooperate rather than compete, speeding up the development of new systems and medical solutions. The hope is that this will lead to greater trust and mutual support within and across nations in the longer term.

In any society there are certain groups of people who not only help during times of crisis, but who are well placed to lead and help shape the future.

Social entrepreneurs

This is a large and growing number of people who emerge as leaders and innovators during a crisis. Their self-grown and community-owned societies, groups, clubs and enterprises bring support, encouragement and hope.

Faith groups

Present in virtually every community in the world, during difficult times people of different faiths often come together in cooperation, friendship and mutual understanding. This was evident during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa when the intervention of faith leaders led to a breakthrough in community acceptance of the disease.

These groups are able to provide valuable support to governments, while also holding them to account. As a result, they are well placed to help countries and communities become less dependent on long-term outside support.

The role of the church

As members and leaders of congregations we have the opportunity to support people affected by infectious diseases. But we must make sure that we do not do more harm than good.

  • We must not consider illness to be a judgement on any person, community or country. Jesus specifically argued against this (eg John 9).
  • We must not believe that prayer alone will replace science and guarantee a cure. God does protect and heal, and prayer does make a difference. Yet we are his hands and feet, and it is vital that we play our part, acting upon the advice of experts and setting a good example.

We can find gentle ways of leading with compassion, kindness and love. Not alone, but working alongside people of all faiths and none. As we reach out into our communities to support others during times of great need, we can truly be the salt and light that Jesus taught us about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13–16).

Final words

My final three words are kindness, collaboration and creativity. We should put kindness first, work joyfully together and think creatively and prayerfully about how we can help build strong and healthy communities.

Common terms

Infectious disease

Diseases caused by tiny organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites. Not all infectious diseases can be passed from person to person.

Communicable disease

An infectious disease that can spread from one person to another through a variety of ways. These include:

  • contact with blood, faeces or bodily fluids (eg Ebola)
  • breathing in an airborne virus (eg Covid-19)
  • being bitten by an insect that is carrying the infection (eg malaria)
  • eating or drinking contaminated food or water (eg cholera)

Non-communicable disease

A disease such as cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure that cannot be passed from person to person. Non-communicable diseases are responsible for about two thirds of all deaths globally.


An infectious disease of animals that can also cause illness in humans. Scientists estimate that three quarters of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals (eg HIV and Covid-19).


A widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.


The worldwide spread of a new infectious disease, usually affecting large numbers of people.


A vaccine helps the body’s immune system recognise and fight disease-causing organisms such as viruses or bacteria. Vaccines can protect against more than 25 serious diseases including measles, polio, meningitis, tetanus and typhoid. Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent disease.


Antibiotics are medicines used mainly to treat bacterial infections. They are not effective against viruses.

Further reading

Setting up community health and development programmes in low and middle income settings
Edited by Ted Lankester and Nathan J Grills (fourth edition)

This book provides clear and practical advice on how to start, develop and maintain health care programmes in rural or urban settings. Visit to buy or download the book free of charge (search for the title and then click on the ‘open access’ icon).

Search the ‘health topics’ section of the World Health Organization website for information and fact sheets on many different diseases including Covid-19, HIV and Ebola. Available in multiple languages.

Written by

Written by  Ted Lankester

Dr Ted Lankester is a member of the Footsteps Editorial Committee and the co-founder of Arukah Network. He is the co-author of Setting up community health and development programmes in low and middle income settings, published by Oxford University Press.

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