We live in an interesting time, a time where people have access to vast amounts of information, and technology allowing us to condense and simplify our lives. But what about the things in our lives such as sickness and disease? These things are not getting any more simplistic, in fact, I’d argue that they are getting more complex. While modern day medicine may offer us an edge over these biological armies, are we making ourselves unintentially more succeptible?
To help answer this I took a look at an article written by Meera Senthilingam (a CNN journalist) titled “Seven reasons we’re at more risk than ever of a global pandemic”, as well as draw upon my own medical knowledge, and some information distributed by the CDC. Just a note to any and all readers, being in the medical field I am a stickler for reliable sources and only use these sources to support my writings.
Transmittion of disease is actually quite simple, although the virus itself is oftentimes quite complex. These vectors can include sneezing, coughing, a kiss, contact with bodily fluids, and the list could go on. As Meera writes, “In most cases the closer those people are to you, the greater the risk”. In a small environment, these vectors may seem harmless in the sense that you may just go to your doctor’s office or visit urgent care, but what if someone who comes in contact doesn’t get seen or doesn’t have a vaccination against a form of disease? This is where it can start to get concerning. I’ve included a small graphic to help explain the following.
If one person gets a “bug” from someone who, let’s say, sneezes and doesn’t get treated then they sneeze and infect someone else, this pattern can repeat on and on, person to person until it infects regions, then crosses borders, and travels internationally, etc. Thus, creating an epidemic, and in time a pandemic. While the process is much more complex than I’ve stated, the intention is to give an idea.
Public health officials and various scientists belive we are at the tipping point of extensive outbreaks in addition to global pandemic events. In recent years we’ve seen events such as this including: Ebola, avian and swine flus, and most recently…Zika. Since almost all outbreaks are unexpected, it is hard to prepare for them. As Jimmy Whitworth stated, “We’re only as secure in the world as the weakest country.”  By “weakest country” I believe Whitworth to be referring to poverty stricken, third-world countries where there is little besides foreign aid and missionary work to assist in responding to global pandemics. With the way that viruses work and infect their hosts, there are little to no boundaries to mind, thus making them harder to control. For example, AIDS. AIDS is a complex retrovirus that, at the genetic level, can undergo reverse transcription – this is a process that is able to convert RNA back into DNA – making it able to produce more “infectious DNA”, in short.
I believe that the way we live can potentially play a role in our risk of disease. I have summarised seven leading explanations to support this theory.
I. Population growth and shift
In an urban environment, people are living in closer proximity to one another, and as more people flock to the cities the cities themselves become more crowded, more garbage, an increase in the liklihood of rodents, sanitation issues, an increased demand of resources, et cetera. The United Nations has reported that the number of “megacities” has tripled within the last 20 years, with a megacity being defined as “a metropolitan area with a total population of more than 10 million people” . With many people commuting to and from cities, the risk of person-to-person contact and transmition between potentially infected persons in an outbreak increases dramatically.
II. Exploring new environments
With population growth and shift also comes a need for new housing developments. This means that forests or other uninhabited areas must be cleared to allow for construction to take place which in turn means that contact with animals increases, many animals can serve as vectors for disease (i.e., cattle for tuberculosis; mosquitos for west nile, zika, malaraia; birds for avian flu; swine for swine flu). As forests are cut down to make way for housing many small animals are left without a food source and home so they often times will often times insert themselves into a person’s living space.
III. Climate change
Climate change offers an increased risk for incubating disease as there are often a greater number of heat waves in addition to events involving flooding, or other natural disasters. In the instance of flooding, more waterborne disease are seen after the event due to mosquitos and rats. In other areas where drought is more common than flooding, heat related sickness and malnutrition become the major threat.
Note: I just read a great book written by Craig Childs (journalist & NPR commentator) titled “Apocalyptic Planet” which discusses climate change and the human impact on the changing planet as seen from first-hand accounts and interviews with leading scientists.
International travel is of growing popularity not only because of the exotic landscapes or immense amounts of history contained within, but also because we all seek an amount of adventure sometimes in areas with little to no human presence. This can open us up to new potentials for infection or even new diseases we haven’t seen before or seen in our lifetimes. Due to the incubation period, a person can effectively be a carrier of an illness without expressing any symptoms and still be able to infect others. An incubation period is defined as the time between initial infection of an illness and the time where symptoms are first expressed. In recent news, the zika outbreak – seen more commonly in warmer, damper environments such as South and Central America as well as the Caribbean, eventuall spread to some southern states in the U.S. – some individuals were contracting this disease from mosquitos while on holiday and coming back to the United States without initially showing symptoms until a few days later, potentially infecting others in that time period.
V. Civil unrest
In countries where there is civil unrest there is often a shift in focus, leaving the population more vulnerable to outbreak as resources are spent elsewhere. As governments focus their attention to the uprisings and events of violence, their ability to handle a potential outbreak is diminished. If an outbreak were to happen during a period of civil unrest it could severely damage a country as many people are infected leading to an increased number of people seeking medical care on an already weak economic and health infrastructure. War and unrest also leads to a number of wounded individuals which is often associated with an increase in the number of diseased as some are left to die in the streets where infection can set in and spread through animals or insects.
VI. Access to medical factilities
As stated in the previous section point, access to medical facilites is often very limited during times of crisis or outbreak as many individuals seek medical care. Hospitals and other medical facilities become overrun reducing the number of available doctors and nurses leaving, unfortunately, many uncared for or turned away. It is also, in such instances, when resources become scarese and medical facilites are left to traige (or treat in order of most life-threatening) individuals based on their immediate needs.
VII. Access to information
In this day and age of technology, information can be in our hands in a matter of seconds. Some experts say that this can open us up to new was of spreading fear and panic. While a portion of outbreaks have gone unnoticed by a majority of the population, there are others such as Ebola and Zika that catch the headlines of many news sources. With the rise of social media, many people state their oppinions without factual evidence as well as spreading what has been dubbed “fake news” with the aim of putting fake information online to see how people react to it or spread it. In times of crisis this can be damaging because it can influence how information spreads and incites fear or panic.
While many agencies and organisations are designing new programs, increasing awareness, and training more individuals on how to respond and handle situations in the event of a major outbreak, the public can still take steps to help prevent the spread of illness. Individuals can stay informed by utilitsing tools from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Red Cross, and even local public health offices such as a doctors office or health department. Vaccinations are also great ways to help develop immunities to many diseases and cut down on the risk of transmittion (a potential topic for later debate, as there is a large amount of “fake news” ciculating on the harm of vaccinations while neglecting to mention factual evidence).
Be sure to check out my article from last week, “Mind the Gap”, which talks about the gap that exists between genders and some issues such as discrimination that women face today.