The word pandemic strikes fear into the heart of many, particularly those who fear disease more than any of the other issues that could quite easily change our way of life forever. A pandemic is simply a global epidemic of a given disease, the word pandemic in itself does not denote the severity of the disease, or the impacts it will have on our lives.
Ebola is a terrible disease, one as yet that has no cure…the same could be said of influenza but that does not seem to evoke nearly as much terror as the word Ebola, particularly when the word Zaire is tacked onto the end of it. Ebola Zaire is the most lethal of the five currently known strains of Ebola virus.
I wrote an article the other day saying that ‘This winters flu season was going to be the most dangerous of your life’. Would I have written the article if we were facing a flu pandemic? Yes, but with a different approach. As I explained in the article Ebola first presents with the symptoms of a heavy cold or a bout of flu coming on, and it’s that that will make this winter so dangerous if it continues to spread, in the initial stages you can’t tell them apart and I have no doubt in my mind that not everyone who has flu will be tested for Ebola and that gives rise to the disease slipping through the cracks and getting passed on repeatedly.
That is how pandemics start.
If, and I pray it does not, but if Ebola does continue to spread then it will present us with a couple of problems that an influenza pandemic would not.
Any pandemic that results in mass illness and death quickly overwhelms heath care systems and causes problems with body disposal. This is where Ebola outstrips influenza on the dangerous scale. Bodies infected with Ebola remain infectious, they need to be cremated as soon as possible and in an ideal world they would be cremated where they die…but the world is not ideal. There are numerous cases of people contracting Ebola from handling the corpses of their relatives. In addition Ebola stays in the system of recovering patients for up to SEVEN weeks, and during that time care has to be taken to make sure that no further spread occurs.
Both Ebola and Influenza have the potential to kill millions of people across the globe and both have the potential to alter our lifestyle in many ways that people rarely stop to think about.
Many people worry about staying at home for an extended period, either because they chose to, or because they are made too by the government in an attempt to halt the spread of disease. Diseases are not job specific. In a serious pandemic there would be little reason for you to venture out. The chances are the stores would be closed, emptied of goods as soon as people realised there was a major problem. With delivery drivers and warehouse staff off work there would be no chance of replenishment…even if the store staff were there to open up, which they won’t be.
- Food production will also be affected as farmers and their staff are hit with whatever is going around.
- Unless the electricity supply in your area is totally automated, as with the homes supplied with hydro electric power by the Hoover dam, then you can expect at a minimum, power outages. At some point, if the situation is severe enough, the power will stay off.
- Same with the water supply. Water treatment plants need people to keep them ticking over.
- Garbage will lie in the streets uncollected.
- Medical services will have crashed under the strain as their own staff fall victim to whatever it is that has caused the pandemic.
- Bodies will remain unburied/uncremated until individuals start dealing the bodies of their own loved ones.
- With little medical help available secondary diseases will start emerging. Small pockets of cases at first before a spread to the general community.
- Those living in areas where there are predators such as bears, alligators etc will start seeing more of these animals in areas outside of their normal range. They will be attracted by the stench and the hope of an easy meal.
- Looting will be the norm amongst those who failed to prepare and are now out of food and who are well enough to go out and take from others.
In 1918, at the start of the pandemic that some experts say killed 50 million people worldwide the population of the planet was 1.6 billion people. The population today is around 7 billion people, but it would be wrong to automatically assume that we would lose less people due to medical advances.
Back in 1918 flying was a rare occurrance. The first commercial flight, just 23 minutes long took place just four years before the pandemic in 1914. The first international commercial flight carrying fee paying passengers rather than cargo was on July 15th 1919 from Folkestone, UK to Ghent in Belgium.
If 50 million deaths occurred at a time when international travel was either overland or by ship, therefore limiting the number of people alive on arrival to pass on the disease. Air travel has altered that dynamic. Many sources estimate that the total number of contacts, and contacts of contacts of Patrick Sawyer the American who died of Ebola last week was 30,000. If I am honest that seems high, but according to the source that’s the figure that has been decided on by the UK government at a meeting last week. You can read more about that here.
As an aside the figure of 1.86 infections per patient is being bandied around. That is each infected person passes the infection on to 1.86 other individuals on average. That might be a little out of date. At least four confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigeria have been traced to direct contact with Patrick Sawyer and health officials are investigating several more.
Air travel not only hastens the speed with which a disease can travel the globe, but it massively increases the number of contacts a person may make, both on the aircraft and in the airports they transit through. It’s obvious where the problem lies…many hundreds of the people both on the aircraft and at the airports are also travelling on to other places. This makes tracing contacts, and the contacts of contacts a logistical nightmare, and it’s how governments come up with such high numbers.
Although novel strains of flu do throw us a curve ball occasionally many people will have been exposed to similar strains of the virus before. This is why H1N1 didn’t cause the deaths that experts feared it would. Millions of people had residual immunity from relatives further back in their bloodline that had survived the 1918-1920 pandemic, which genetically shared some characteristics with H1N1.
With Ebola Zaire there is no residual immunity, there is no immunity of any kind as so few people have had the disease. If Ebola does escape Africa, and if, as with Patrick Sawyer, the transmission rate is climbing, God only knows what the outcome will be.
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Contributed by Lizzie Bennett of Underground Medic.
Lizzie Bennett retired from her job as a senior operating department practitioner in the UK earlier this year. Her field was trauma and accident and emergency and she has served on major catastrophe teams around the UK. Lizzie publishes Underground Medic on the topic of preparedness.