The earliest living things are over three billion years old and they have proven to be both a help and a threat to us. Bacteria and viruses have always been a part of our evolution. Every so often one will come along that simply overwhelms us and rather than just making us sick will kill thousands if not millions.
There are a variety of bacteria and viruses and multiple times when their variations have affected and killed many humans. It is this range and variability that makes them so effective and deadly.
I will focus one infection that on two occasions wreaked havoc as a way to illustrate the issues and give some sense of the challenges biologists face to fight them and how we are often part of the problem.
The name influenza is Italian as it was thought that astrological influences caused the issue, they did not know it was a disease caused by a virus but they did realise that its effect would end after a period of time, you either recovered or died. Isolating people was already in practice but the new method by Venetian controlled ports would see ships from countries considered to be high risk made to anchor for 40 days before entering the port. From this we get quarantine which means 40 days.
Flu’s are contagious which is an indicator of how likely someone exposed to the virus is likely to become infected. When the levels of infection are stable as you might see during the summer months that flu can be considered endemic, when it spreads and rapidly increases, the outbreak can be called an epidemic and when an epidemic spreads beyond national borders and continents it is called a pandemic which means “all people”
That is interesting because flu pandemics are almost never the kind that comes from people, they typically come from other animals like bats, horses or seals but mostly from birds and pigs.
Flu type B & C only affect humans, but type A infects the animals mentioned above too.
Flu virus type A has two further variations that improve its chances of beating our immune defenses and typically give the specific virus its name H and N.
In 1918 a bird virus developed that was also able to infect humans, it was the H1N1 strain of Influenza A virus. Those infected would have sought treatment believing it was the same as a type B or C flu virus, but it was far more contagious as humans had never been exposed to it before.
The flu appears to have started in the US and rapidly spread first in hospitals where it was first treated and them by hospital staff to other facilities. As it occurred during World War I, the virus was transported from the US to Europe among 2 million troops that crossed the Atlantic, in far less than 40 days, allowing the virus to spread on board and then across Europe. It got its name from the news coverage centered in the Spanish press as the nations at war suppressed news about the deadly virus spreading through their populations. It resulted in more deaths than World War I itself with estimates from 50 to 100 million fatalities. As a result, as much as a third of the world population would be infected. While that made it the worst outbreak in history, anyone who survived was unlikely to get it again and so less likely to spread it should they come into contact that was not infected.
This is the main reason contagious viruses tend to be short-lived. It is also the reason vaccines can be so useful to prevent the outbreak in the first place. Viruses need to spread to survive if an infected person comes into contact with two people with no immunity both will become infected and can infect more people, but if one had immunity the chances of it spreading are drastically reduced.
Vaccinating a high percentage can prevent anyone from becoming infected as the chance of spreading to an infected person is so low. This is herd immunity and has been the reason we have managed to eradicate some infections like Smallpox which despite being very contagious and quite deadly is no longer a threat. However, when vaccination levels fall as they have done thanks to false information and fear about vaccines, everyone becomes more vulnerable, especially those who can’t or did not get vaccinated.
Trade and transport have long been an amplifying factor for pandemics as seen during WW1 but today should a virus like H1N1 occur again, the entire world would be infected far quicker.
If you have the flu, you should stay home. Taking antibiotics for a flu virus does not work and could make things worse.
Bill Gates believes a pandemic poses a greater and more realistic risk to humanity in the short term.
Consider the impact of a pandemic that forces countries to shut their borders. It would cause important supplies to run short and prices to skyrocket. Medical facilities would be swamped. Work would grind to a halt as people either stayed away or could not work. The economy would crash and the chances of recovery difficult for patients and the countries affected alike.
You might think that this is a warning about a threat from long ago, but a variation of that same H1N1 virus mutated in 2009 and in just 12 months over 60 million infections were reported in the US alone with over 12 000 deaths, globally over 500 000 people died. This virus was still H1N1 but had recombined with four other flu viruses.
It was first identified on April 12, 2009, in the US which had posted the full genome before the end of that month and activated all the emergency plans and stockpiles of supplies for such an event and still it rapidly spread.
It seems obvious that we should prepare for the next outbreak, but many countries for a variety of reasons are not suitably prepared. Neither is business. Each year the regular flu season sees managers stress to keep all the posts covered as staff fall ill. During an epidemic, it would get much worse, yet few companies have a plan that can address such a situation.
South Africa is under pressure from a slow economy, severe damage from corruption, massive unemployment and stretched health care as we deal with the HIV epidemic. Should a new flu virus be found it would not take long to arrive in SA. South Africa’s plans were formulated in 2007 and the handling of the HIV crisis suggests the medical professionals are well placed to deal with an outbreak.
Business may not be sufficiently prepared and it is very likely that citizens are not. Hopefully, thanks to this that risk is now also a little less. You could always try the board game and see if you are ready.