Infectious diseases have been with us throughout the whole of human history. In general, these diseases are caused by two types of microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses. For example, the bubonic plague – which many believe to have caused the Black Death in the Middle Ages – is a bacterium. This bacterium is still with us today and still causes outbreaks.
The “common cold,” on the other hand, is generally considered to be viral, typically a rhinovirus. This has also affected humans as far back as records have been kept.
These viruses and bacteria become dangerous when they spread easily and kill quickly. They can spread quickly with human help – lack of sanitation, poor hygiene practices, etc. – or through genetic mutations or adaptations.
As medicine has advanced in countries like ours, we’ve gotten much better at not helping these diseases spread.
However, that hasn’t always been the case. There are two epidemic crises in American history that are worth noting.
Cholera Outbreak of 1832
In many ways, the cholera outbreaks of the 19th century were our first modern epidemics because they coincided with the rise of global mass media.
American newspapers and journals at the time allowed Americans to follow the spread of the disease from India to Russia through Eastern Europe, closer and closer to the Atlantic.
Many Americans hoped that the ocean would keep the disease from its borders. However, just as it’s believed to have spread through trade routes in Eurasia, it arrived through transoceanic travel as well. Historians are still unsure exactly how it arrived here, but when it did, it caused massive panic.
Nearly half of New York City’s population fled for the countryside – this was before motor vehicles mind you. Even our president, Andrew Jackson was urged to flee hard-hit Washington D.C., being 65 and in ill-health. He was reluctant to do so but eventually did relocate to his family estate in Tennessee.
Many in the medical community at the time felt that quarantines were critical to containing the spread. However, many others felt that this went against medical ethics, violating liberty and promoting "vulgar prejudices."
We learned then and know now that cholera is easily spread through sewage and contaminated water. Cholera still causes as many as 130,000 deaths annually, primarily where issues of contamination persist. The U.S. hasn’t seen a cholera outbreak since 1911, but we have seen infectious diseases spread through water contamination in the recent past. This includes the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993. This is why it’s critical that we filter our water as a daily preparedness practice. Much of our water infrastructure is very old. Some of it as old as the Civil War – when America was applying the lessons learned from cholera. I sincerely hope we don’t have to experience another epidemic to update our water infrastructure. But until that happens, I’ll be running every ounce of my family’s water through my Alexapure Pro®.
The 1918 Flu Pandemic
Also known as the “Spanish Flu,” this pandemic has been described as the "greatest medical holocaust in history." Modern estimates say that 50-100 million people died, roughly 3-6% of the world’s population. This flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, and the Black Death killed in a century.
The site of the very first confirmed outbreak was at Camp Funston, Fort Riley in Kansas. Some theories claim it originated there, while others claim it originated in the WWI battlefields of Europe. Regardless, massive troop movement in close quarters and increased international travel during that period helped the disease to spread.
The 1918 influenza was the first of two H1N1 influenza pandemics. The 2009 “swine flu” epidemic was the same virus. These types of influenza are considered “novel viruses.” What that means essentially, is that they are unique when compared with seasonal flu patterns.
Seasonal influenza strains predominately affect infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Strains like H1N1, on the other hand, put young, healthy adults most at risk. The virus causes the immune system to overreact and collapse, making healthy people the best hosts. Novel viruses, especially common ones like influenza subtypes, remain one of the greatest threats to public health we have today.
Let’s take a look at our current state of affairs.
"Too many to care for at once."
In the century since the 1918 flu pandemic, we’ve made countless breakthroughs in medical science.
Yet, one fact remains the same now as in 1918: there is no universal vaccine for influenza. Each year, the flu vaccine changes based on which strains the vaccine-makers believe will be prevalent that year. However, mutations creating novel viruses can make these vaccines worthless. While most doctors advise people – especially at-risk populations - to get a shot every year, studies show they only decrease risk by 40-60%.
Scientists are currently working to unlock the key to a universal flu vaccine. In recent years, they have noticed that parts of the virus’ “viral protein” does not change from season to season and can be targeted to create a universal vaccine.
Until that happens, the flu remains a major threat. Even with our medical advancements, a severe novel strain would overwhelm the public health system. According to Tom Ingelsby of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "we’d have seven times more people in need of ventilation than we have ventilators, and seven times the number of people needing intensive care than we have intensive care beds."
While some in the medical field focus on vaccines to prevent these diseases, many others are working on trying to predict it.
The Global Virome Project, proposed in 2016, is still only a concept. But if funded, it would aim to find and genetically sequence all viruses in birds and mammals that could potentially spread to humans. They estimate that nearly half a million such viruses exist. The GVP believes that if we can proactively prepare for these viruses, we can end the “Pandemic Era.” The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has a similar program called PREDICT.
However, according to many experts, these plans won’t work. These virologists claim there are too many factors to predict zoonosis (the spread of disease from animals to humans). They point to Ebola and Zika as examples. Ebola was discovered in 1976 and Zika in 1947. But we couldn’t predict them becoming outbreaks. Proponents of predictive pandemic modeling say it’s too early to dismiss the technology. For now, we wait.
Now it’s time to discuss how we as individuals can prepare for these kinds of events.
Preparing for Pandemics at Home
Before we dive into practical preparedness tips, I want to note that I am not a doctor or medical professional. Any medical advice, tips or suggestions should be discussed with your trusted medical professional. Furthermore, talking to your doctor about your preparedness journey can be extremely valuable. If they understand your cause, they may help you obtain supplies to keep “just in case.” Even better, if you can inspire them to join you in preparedness, being on personal terms with a doctor can be invaluable in a crisis.
Let’s start with the basics. Basic hygiene is the easiest thing to know and do. Keep plenty of soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your emergency kit. Surgical gloves and masks are also critical for hygiene. Make sure you know how to take them off without spreading contamination. Here’s how to do it with gloves:
Since many deaths from infectious diseases occur due to dehydration, it’s important to have plenty of clean water to drink. Even better, something with electrolytes, like our Orange Energy Drink mix.
Having a few medical reference books on hand can be helpful, too. There are two we highly recommend in our Survival Books selection.
Also, keeping an emergency radio on during the crisis will keep you alert to any suggestions being broadcasted by the CDC or whoever is organizing the response to the crisis. We hope that the next pandemic is not accompanied by a grid failure, but it’s always best to have off-grid solutions like this prepared.
In your first-aid kit, you’ll want NSAIDS like acetaminophen and ibuprofen to suppress fever and other symptoms.
Another key part of preparedness is staying as healthy as possible prior to the outbreak. That means focusing on a balanced diet, regular exercise, staying up on vaccinations and check-ups, etc.
If you practice these basic principles, you’ll be far more prepared for any epidemic than most.
In the future, we plan to break down more complex preparedness tactics as they relate to infectious diseases. This includes deciding whether to shelter in place or bugout, how to create an at-home quarantine and more.
Stay tuned for those full-length features in the weeks and months to come.
For now, stay vigilant and begin building out your pandemic preparedness, if you haven’t already done so.
Have a great weekend, friends!
Preparedness Advisor, MPS
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