Pandemics are global disease outbreaks. They have occurred many times throughout history and will occur again; the only real mystery is when and to what severity. So how do you prepare for a pandemic? The most important thing you can do to survive a pandemic is to understand how to be informed and how to watch an epidemic.
First let me define a few terms:
- An Outbreak of a disease occurs when the disease occurs in greater numbers than expected.
- An Epidemic of a disease occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to a large amount of people.
- A Pandemic is a global disease outbreak.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has devised a phase 1-6 influenza pandemic alert system. Although influenza is not the only disease that could cause a pandemic it is the most likely and it occurs every year so the alert system was put in place to deal primarily with influenza.
- Phase 1: A virus in animals has caused no known infections in humans
- Phase 2: An animal flu virus has caused infection in humans
- Phase 3: Sporadic cases or small clusters of disease occur in humans
- Phase 4: The risk for a pandemic is greatly increased but not certain
- Phase 5: Spread of disease between humans is occurring in more than one country
- Phase 6: Community-level outbreaks are in at least one additional country in a different WHO Region from phase 5. A global Pandemic is underway.
The last global influenza pandemic was in 2009 when H1N1 or Swine Flu made its way across the human population. I use the term pandemic here loosely. According to the technical definition it was a pandemic, although I have heard the term pseudo-pandemic and mini-pandemic used. H1N1 is not what we think of when we here the term pandemic, we align the term more closely with The Black Plague. The deadliest pandemic within the past hundred years was the Spanish Flu which hit around 1918 and killed an estimated 50 million people. The interesting thing about this flu is that it killed people with the strongest immune systems, young adults age 20-35. Historian Howard Markel believes that the Spanish flu was a variant of the Avian flu, because of the evidence recorded in autopsies of the time. There have been other diseases that have threatened the global population, HIV and SARS to name a few, but the consensus among experts is that the next global pandemic will be some sort of influenza, and some will even go as far as suggesting that it will be the Avian flu. It could be any disease but a deadly influenza strain is especially bothersome since people tend to not take flu seriously, adding to its rapid spread.
How do you watch an epidemic? When do you know not to fly on a plane? When do you know it's too dangerous to go to work? When do you know to put your family in a first level quarantine? I don't have all the answers! But it's important to think these questions through and have a plan when the threat is not bearing down. I would want to take action before the authorities (the government, a company, or my kids school) decided to shut down. The nature of these institutions lead them to take action after a local outbreak has occurred. At what point do you stop going to the grocery store?
My family actually went into a level one quarantine for the first few months of this year (December-February) because of this year's flu epidemic. My youngest son has severe Asthma and if he were to catch any flu it could be life threatening. Level one quarantine for my family is that the boys don't go to the grocery store or any other unnecessary outing. They are homeschooled so going to school was not an issue and they were still allowed to go to group functions but we thought trips to stores and other public places where their presence was not required was putting them at unnecessary risk. Also, it was a chance for us to put our plan into action an see how it would apply to our everyday life.
Two Good Books on Pandemics:
Surviving a Disease Pandemic by Leland Benton: this book goes into greater detail about what a pandemic is and gives a lot of online references. It does not get bogged down in jargon but helps you understand what challenges authorities face when dealing with a pandemic. It's a very good starting place to learn more about your options and what plans you need to put in place for you family.
The Jakarta Pandemic by Steven Konkoly is a novel about a pandemic. This is not a zombie book! It's a story about a normal family and how they deal with a pandemic in the middle of winter in Maine. They live in a suburban area and have children that attend school and have to decide how they will survive. It's a really good read because we can all relate to this family on some level. I found myself not able to put the book down because I simply wanted to know how they were going to handle dangerous situations, situations that I might find myself in someday.
Also, to keep an eye on global diseases, I would recommend the WHO and the CDC, but if you want a little more information, I would highly recommend the Center for Infections Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP); they are part of the University of Minnesota. If you sign up for their newsletter they will send you a report daily. It's probably more information than you need daily but they do a great job of keeping you informed and they also keep you up to date on research.