This paper provides an introduction to the history of the concept of “emerging infectious diseases” (EID) and reflects on how humanities and social science scholars have interacted with it. It starts with a chronological outline of the coinage of the concept in the early 1990s in the wake of the shocks provoked by Ebola and HIV/AIDS, which disrupted the idea that the West was transitioning from a period of infectious diseases to one of chronic diseases. We argue that humanities and social science scholars in disciplines such as history, anthropology, STS, and literature studies have critically explored the concept, showing how entrenched it was in the perceptions of the US and Europe about threats posed by the rest of the globe. Moreover, we explore how scholars in the humanities have used the EID concept to comment on contemporary realities and mobilized it to create dialogues with scientists, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, we explore how the growing contemporary interest in EID has pushed historians to research the ontological and epistemological factors that enabled the “emergence” of diseases long before the invention of the EID concept, such as plague, Chagas disease, and sleeping sickness, as well as the factors that transformed these and other emerging diseases into pandemics. We conclude by outlining a few neglected factors in the EID literature that could be addressed: the circulation and reception of the concept outside of the West, the examination of EID as a problem for wild animals and not just for humans, and global histories of disease emergence as an epistemological and social process.


Copyright © 2023 the Authors. For the purpose of open access, the author has applied a CC BY public copyright licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission. This accepted manuscript is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. The final published version of this work is available at https://doi.org/10.1086/726979

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Alves Duarte Da Silva, M. & Skotnes-Brown, J. 2023, 'Emerging infectious diseases and disease emergence: critical, ontological and epistemological approaches', Isis, 114(S1), pp. S26-S49. https://doi.org/10.1086/726979

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Last updated: 29 September 2023
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