The world is an open book in terms of transportation, economy and immigration. This also means its open to disease as well.
A highly communicable pandemic would have the potential to travel this world and back again in a matter of 48 hours. I make this bold prediction just based on international business travel. This does not take into account tourism. If it reared its head in a place like China or the US, it would be the worst-case scenario. The blessing with something like Ebola is that it is in Africa and the population as well as tourism and business travel pales in comparison to places like US and China
Viruses More Likely to Cause a Pandemic
Why are these viruses more likely to cause a pandemic?
All of these viruses are so-called RNA (not DNA) viruses. This means there are more mutations happening every time the virus replicates in a cell. More mutations lead to more changes in the viral genome, potentially making the virus more virulent– better at infecting humans, replicating more efficiently and therefore making people sicker. Another thing these viruses have in common is the fact that they are usually present in animals and might not necessarily cause disease in those carriers but adapt to humans at some point, causing severe disease. These viruses also tend to cause high mortality because they affect several organs causing them to shut down.
When a Pandemic Starts
When a pandemic starts, don’t panic right away. You might hear on the news about new cases of avian flu in China or other Asian countries. They will be the most likely source of a pandemic flu, due to the presence of unregulated live bird markets that can spread the disease quickly, and the close contact people have with these animals. The same is true for respiratory infections such as SARS or MERS, which usually have adapted to humans after going through several animal species, starting with bats but then transmitting to agricultural animals and finally to humans.
The adaptation phase can be slow, but when the time comes that a virus transmits between humans, these infections will be rapidly spreading. Human-to-human transmission is the most critical barrier. So far, avian flu has not caused a pandemic simply due to the fact that almost all infections happened through contact with the animals themselves. At the most, family members transmitted among themselves due to close and prolonged contact. However, when human transmission becomes easy, it will be bedlam.
Most likely you will hear something about some human cases first, followed by rapid growing numbers in the country of origin and around. From there it won’t be long to hear about the first cases in the U.S. or Europe, maybe just a few days. This part is difficult to predict, as some infections are contagious at very early to slightly later stages of infection, but typically when people start to sneeze they are contagious. So, if you are relatively sure that a pandemic is at hand, call in to work sick, take your kids out of school, ensure you got supplies to sit it out, and rather enjoy some vacation days.
(Disclaimer: I am a scientist working with viruses, and that is what I will do). Folllowing this procedure, the worst case scenario is that you get some vacation days and the kids do too. That is better than going to work because you think you are overreacting and catching something by a colleague who just returned from his vacation, sat in an airplane, and is starting to sneeze into your general direction when trying to show you some pictures of that great landmark he visited (with many other people) on his cell phone.
So how does a virus like the flu or SARS transmit?
Transmission of a respiratory virus happens by droplets, so this is sneezing and coughing but also when somebody sneezes into his/her hands and then touches the shopping cart, the door knob, the debit/credit card checkout, et cetera. In other words, transmission happens extremely easily. You got more germs on your cell phone than there are on a public toilet seat, true story. Ebola is harder to transmit, as it is through bodily fluids, so people most affected were in close contact with patients, such as medical personnel and relatives. But again, there is a potential for a critical mutation making transmission easier.
Do’s and Don’ts of Biosecurity Measures
So, you decided to stay home, and it turns out there really is an avian flu or other virus spreading rapidly. You realize that even though you planned ahead, there are a few items you still want to get in a last-ditch effort. If you really have to go to a public place, take Lysol wipes with you in the car. Put on that NIOSH 95 mask. Don some nitrile or latex gloves. If people look at you funny, cough a bit, so they think you are being very considerate trying not to spread something or alternatively tell them the end is near. You could also ignore them; do whatever works for you. Just don’t be too embarrassed and take it off.
It is supposed to keep 95% of infectious particles out, so if somebody coughs or sneezes directly at you, you got a fighting chance. If you want 100% protection, you need to be prepared to spend a lot of money on a biohazard suit, go through the pain of putting it on and walking into the store looking like an alien, and be prepared to possibly cause a panic and deal with a 911 call while there. When you grab what you need, be aware of your hands.
Touching Your Face
Most people don’t realize that they tend to touch their faces unconsciously many times during the day, and you do not want to touch a surface containing the virus and then get your hand in contact with eyes, nose, or mouth, which will give the virus access to your body. Put those Lysol wipes in your cart and use them throughout, particularly after checkout and again when you arrive at your car. Give the steering wheel and the gear shift a wipe down just to make sure. If you wore gloves, take them off before entering your car.
General Biosecurity Measures
General biosecurity measures include: stay home! If you have to leave your house, use personal protection equipment, including the following:
- Gloves. Wear gloves if you go anywhere near potentially contaminated surfaces. Take them off when done! They might get contaminated and you will just distribute the virus evenly around. Gloves are able to protect you from virus touching your skin, but if that virus sits on the glove, you can still get sick if you are not careful. Picture that you are touching a surface with glowing green or red paint with those gloves and then continue to use them. Where is that paint going to end up? It will be on a lot of things that you touch afterwards.
- Mask. Wear a NIOSH 95 mask if venturing among people. Surgical masks won’t do a lot really.
- Hand Washing. Wash your hands frequently.
- Wipes. Keep up with wiping down surfaces that you and others touch frequently, particularly doorknobs and appliances.
- Keep Your Distance. Droplets can travel several feet, so try to stay a distance of six feet or more from somebody who is actively sneezing or coughing.
For respiratory viruses, these measures are the most effective ones.
If you do not have a commercial disinfectant, a dilution of bleach does the trick. Generally, a 10% dilution is very effective, especially if it sits for 10 minutes, but on metal surfaces such as those on appliances that can be a bit problematic after a while. I use the metric measurements on my pitcher, 50 ml of bleach with 450 ml of tap water added for a total volume of 500 ml. It is just more precise, but if you are allergic to metric measurements, 0.2 cups (so a little less than 1/4 cup) in a bit over 2 quarts is approximately the same.
You want to use gloves, nitrile or latex is fine, and a 10% bleach solution won’t destroy your skin right away, but it will be irritating to some people, especially if you keep using it. Rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide work too. Influenza and coronaviruses (the ones that cause SARS- or MERS-like infections) are not as stable in the environment due to their structure. On the outside these viruses have what is called an envelope, made out of components of the cell wall from the cell they were replicating in, in other words a human cell. This envelope makes the virus actually more susceptible to disinfectants, UV light, and other environmental factors.
Evading Your Immune System
However, it also makes it better at evading your pesky immune system. Although not extremely stable in the environment, enveloped viruses, like the flu or SARS, can survive on some surfaces for up to 24 hours. This is why wiping down frequently is important, but of course you don’t have to do that if nobody goes in and out. The virus does not appear out of nowhere; you have to pick it up from somebody.
In summary, if you can avoid going out after a pandemic hits, stay at home. Don’t let neighbors or family in (especially the in-laws), and you will be fine, assuming you are self-sufficient in regards to food and water.