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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How to Have a Pleasant Pandemic

Futuristic Snag: A Science Fiction Story
One day on the television news you hear about some new strain of flu called H3N7. You don't pay any real attention, because the news report mentions only a small number of deaths. But then over the next few weeks you hear more and more news reporters talking about this H3N7 strain. The reporters say that this new flu has spread to major cities in the United States.

Not very worried, you go on with your business without hardly thinking about the issue. Then one day you notice that the news reporters seem to be talking about almost nothing other than H3N7. Hundreds of people are dropping dead because of this new strain. Scientists have started to work on a vaccine, but they have just got started, and it will be a long time before they are finished.

The reporters tell you to always sneeze onto your shoulder, and to wash your hands frequently. You start doing that. You take the subway to work in New York City, and whenever you see someone sneezing or coughing you move to a different part of the subway.

Before long you hear that hundreds of people have died from the new flu strain in New York City alone. You notice that many people on the subway are starting to wear surgical masks. You wonder whether you should do so also. But you figure that it's a rather timid thing to do, and you notice that still most people are not wearing the masks. So you decide not to wear one.

Soon the death toll in New York City rises to the thousands. At about the time when most of the people start wearing surgical masks on the subway, you start wearing one too. Then you start seeing people collapse on the street, and collapse in the subways. Now you decide you will take no more subways until the H3N7 pandemic ends. You start walking three miles to work every day.

The death toll in New York City rises higher and higher. Before long, more than 50,000 have died. Now you start wearing your surgical mask everywhere, including all of the time you are at work. A while later the death toll in New York City climbs to 200,000. You start wearing two surgical masks, one on top of the other.

Eventually the death toll in New York City climbs to more than 400,000. You decide to take no more chances. You quit your job, and buy all the food you can. It's hard to find much, because the stores have been stripped clean. Then you go to your apartment, and vow to wait it out there until the horrible pandemic is over.

The next day you wake up in your apartment with chills and a horrible headache. You use a thermometer to find out that your temperature is 103 degrees F. You look in the mirror, and notice your face is pale. You are in the grip of the deadly flu. You slump against the wall, and wonder what to do next.

Four Pandemics That Killed Many Millions

The fictional account above may sound like something that could never happen, but it merely describes a disease pandemic, and there have been at least four pandemics in history on the same scale and severity.

One such pandemic was the Black Plague, which killed between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe's population. The medieval Europeans had no idea that the disease was being spread by rat fleas, and it spread out of control.

Another such pandemic was the smallpox pandemic which spread to the New World after Europeans arrived in the period after 1492. The natives of North and South America had no resistance to this deadly disease, and it spread like wildfire. It is estimated that some 90% of the original population of North and South America died in the years following 1492. Much of that was due to the ruthless subjugation and maltreatment by European conquistadors and their successors, but a large fraction died because of the pandemic.

In 1918 the world was struck by the worst pandemic of modern times. It was originally called the Spanish Flu, although it probably did not arise in Spain. It may have arisen in the filthy trenches of World War I, where countless men were packed under miserable unsanitary conditions. Regardless of how it started, it quickly spread around the world. It is estimated that 500 million people were infected, and that between 50 and 100 million people died. Many of the infected died within two or three days. Luckily the outbreak did not last long compared to other diseases such as AIDS. Some think that the virus may have mutated to a less lethal strain.

One might think that we no longer have to worry about pandemics on this scale, because of the sophistication of modern medicine. But the modern day AIDS epidemic proves otherwise. AIDS was first officially detected in the early 1980's, and since then has spread to some 33 million people worldwide. Of these, some 25 million have died. Nations have spent countless dollars over three decades in attempts to find a cure and vaccine, but so far all that we have are various expensive treatments that greatly slow the course of the disease.

Why the Risk of Pandemics May Increase

There are several reasons for believing that the risk of global pandemics may increase. The reasons are these:
  • An increasing number of people across the globe are engaging in air travel, which helps to spread infectious diseases. Around 1950 if some person in Shanghai developed some rare new strain of infectious flu, the outbreak would stay fairly localized, as virtually no Chinese were engaging in international air travel at that time. Now because of increased affluence in increasingly prosperous countries such as China, there would be a much higher chance of the flu carrier traveling on a plane to some other country and spreading the disease.
  • As medical science advances, there may be an increased chance that some hostile nation deliberately creates an outbreak, after using some technology such as gene-splicing. We know that biological warfare was extensively used by the Japanese during World War II. It is estimated that very many thousands of Chinese died as a result of biological warfare launched by imperial Japan. A modern nation or a well-funded terrorist group might one day put together some laboratories and look for a way to create a new killer strain that might spread uncontrollably. The Soviet Union worked extensively on biological weapons in secret, even after signing a treaty banning such weapons. We have no idea whether the frightening products of these labors have been passed on to terrorists or to nations such as North Korea.
  • In 2011 it was reported that a Dutch researcher in Rotterdam, Netherlands had created an artificial version of the H5N1 flu virus that was genetically modified to be extremely dangerous. Supposedly the modified version was so dangerous it could wipe out half of the world population if unleashed.
  • Global warming may cause the appearance of new diseases. For example, it is known that mosquitoes can greatly increase the spread of deadly diseases such as West Nile disease. All the increased flooding from global warming will create many new pools of water in various spots across the world, and mosquitoes thrive in such spots. 
  • Some strains of disease are getting increasingly resistant to antibiotics. 
  • One of the scientists who claims to have recently discovered a trace of alien life in the upper atmosphere is worried that some of those alien microbes may fall to the earth and cause a horrifying mass pandemic. 

How to Have a Pleasant Pandemic

By a “pleasant pandemic” I simply mean a pandemic in which neither you nor your family get sick. Here are some tips to follow that will reduce your chances of being infected in the next great pandemic. Some of these tips are things you should be doing now. Others are tips you only need to follow once a pandemic starts brewing.
  • Get all of the recommended vaccinations for your children. The most basic way to protect your children is to make sure they have all the vaccinations recommended by the Center for Disease Control. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you can skip this for just your child, because everyone else is getting these vaccinations. Lots of other parents think exactly the same thing, which means there is a real risk of your children getting a disease if you fail to get the vaccination.
  • Ask your doctor to check whether you need any new vaccinations. By removing yourself as a possible carrier, you are improving the safety for your own child.
  • Wash your hands frequently, particularly after returning to your home from outside. A flu virus can spread rapidly through a means such as this: a sick person touches his nose or lips, and gets germs on his hands; that person then touches a surface such as a door knob or subway rail; you then touch the same surface and get the same germs on your hands; you then touch your nose or lips and bring the germs into your body. You can help minimize the chance of this transmission by washing your hands frequently, particularly after returning from outside. You can conveniently wash your hands in a subway, mall, or office by carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Just put a few drops on your hands, rub your hands thoroughly, and wait until they are dry.
  • Avoid touching your nose or mouth with your hands while you are outside, unless you wash your hands first  If your nose itches, don't use your fingers to scratch it. Use the middle of your arm. The middle of your arm will not have touched any surfaces during the time you were outside, so it will be relatively free of germs.
  • Try not to let your hands touch commonly touched surfaces. You can assume that there are many germs on commonly touched surfaces, so you wish to avoid them. Let's take the example of a public bathroom. If there is a door knob, it will probably have many germs. You can avoid touching the knob when you enter the bathroom by waiting for someone else to go in first, and quickly follow them in; or you can simply use the knob and wash your hands immediately after. When you leave the bathroom, you can either wait for someone else to open the door and quickly follow them out, or you can grab a paper towel and wrap that for a second around the door knob.
  • Cough or sneeze into your shoulder, rather than using your hands to block your coughing or sneezing. While walking around outside you may have got other people's germs on your hands, and by sneezing or coughing into your hands, you may be helping such germs into your body.
  • If a flu pandemic is spreading, avoid crowds. One way to do this is to avoid going to work during rush hour. Other ways to do this include avoiding shopping when there are large crowds, avoiding theater events and sporting events, and avoiding large-crowd public events such as parades and New Years Day celebrations.
  • If a flu pandemic is spreading, wear a surgical mask or dust mask while you are in crowds. No matter how carefully you follow the advice above, you won't be protected if you are in a crowded train, and the person next to you starts sneezing. A sneeze is a remarkably effective way to transmit germs. So if a very serious flu pandemic is spreading, wear a surgical mask or dust mask in places such as trains and train stations.
  • If you are in a crowd near someone who is sneezing or coughing, immediately cover your nose and mouth with your shoulder, and hurry to ten feet away. This is a case such as when you are sitting in a subway and someone a few away sneezes or coughs. Immediately lower your head to the left, placing your nose and mouth next to your shoulder, and walk ten feet away.
  • In a train, theater, or sports arena, try to sit 10 feet away from strangers. No matter how carefully you try to move away from a sneezing passenger in a train, you may breathe in some of his germs. It is best to sit ten feet away from any stranger, when this is practical.
  • Avoid promiscuous sexual activity. Because some pandemics are transmitted through sexual contact, it is a good idea to limit your sexual partners, ideally to a very small number.
  • Use disinfectant wipes on your door knobs, cell phones, and shopping carts. Germs tend to accumulate on cell phones, door knobs, and the push handles of shopping carts. You can reduce this risk by wiping them down with germ-killing disinfectant wipes.
  • Avoid shaking hands with strangers. When meeting someone at an office, a salute and a smile is an alternative gesture of friendliness and respect.
  • Press elevator buttons with your elbow or a pen. Going into an office building and pressing the elevator buttons with your fingers is like shaking hands with 30 strangers.
  • Use stairs rather than elevators. If you are going up several floors in an elevator, you are basically trapped if someone starts sneezing or coughing. Better to use the stairs and avoid the risk entirely. Stair climbing is also great aerobic exercise.
  • Consume foods and supplements which boost your immune system. Eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruit can boost your immune system, which make it less likely that you catch any disease spreading in a pandemic. Among vegetables, garlic is supposedly the most effective at boosting the immune system. To boost your immune system, you can also take a daily multivitamin tablet that includes vitamin C and zinc, or swallow a garlic tablet.

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