A Fine Line Between Collaboration and Quarantine: Global Responses to Health Epidemics
At first, you might not notice it. Perhaps, you’re slogged with schoolwork, or spending hours at practice, or just going through the motions of this bleak, dark winter. In any case, it wouldn’t naturally be at the forefront of your mind, this tingle in your throat that’s barely there, that dull ache at your temples, the need to blow your nose not once, but twice, when you wake up in the morning. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, it has arrived in full force. The sickness comes in swinging, and it’s taking no prisoners. The signs were there all along, and you realize it was bound to happen: you’ve finally caught the flu, a strain of strep throat, the common cold, or a bad case of the Mondays.
Illness can tear a community apart. Sneeze a couple too many times in math class and whispers will follow you down the hallway, though keeping a radius of distance to avoid contamination. Everyone seems to have invested in hand sanitizer, and it is applied like holy water, abolishing germs from outstretched hands. Dr. Melanie Stanton, Head Athletic Trainer, notes that cases of “the stomach virus, strep throat, upper respiratory illnesses resulting in coughs and congestion, as well as Influenza B” are being spread throughout the school at the moment. Friends stop sharing snacks at lunch, homemade goodies for Advisory are out of the question, and family members are confined and quarantined to their rooms and made to wear face masks when they decide to venture out.
In contrast, the past decade has seen the field of medicine unite to combat a number of public health issues, taking great strides into the uncharted territory of the future. Aspects of global health and safety are developing faster than ever before, and are generating a more cohesive international health community as a result. A drug by the name of dolutegravir was developed to reduce the amount of the HIV/AIDS virus in a patient's bloodstream. NPR reports that in 2017, 558,000 people were diagnosed with an untreatable strain of TB, and a vaccine was formulated to effectively combat it. Advances in technology allowed for the analysis of large data bases found on Facebook and Twitter to better detect and monitor the spread of diseases around the world.
Despite these advances, health crises continue to ravage populations, worldwide. In the African country of Guinea, Ebola broke out at the end of 2013. By March, the World Health Organization reported 29 deaths. Seven countries reported cases of the virus, and in 2019, a second outbreak of Ebola occurred in the DRC. In 2015, Zika was reported in North and South America, spreading globally and causing complications in pregnant women. Superbugs, bacteria or fungi that have built up a resistance to antibiotic treatment, result in around 35,000 deaths a year. And now, as 2020 opens the doors of the incoming decade, a new international dilemma: the coronavirus.
What sets the coronavirus apart? Well, to start, the term “coronavirus” describes a type of viral strain that, when observed with a microscope, appears to have crown like spikes. Mr. Yoder, a science teacher at the Upper School, explains the mechanisms of viruses, which are nonliving and therefore difficult to effectively treat. “Viruses hijack systems in humans,” he says. “They invade your cells and they hijack all of the machinery that you have to produce proteins and to replicate your DNA to build their own viral particles, which assemble and then get released. They need a host.”
Scientists have named this strain of coronavirus Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia or NCP to distinguish it from those of the past. Another infamous coronavirus that wreaked havoc on a global level was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). This virus was recognized by the World Health Organization in February of 2003, infecting 8,096 people and resulting in the death of 774. Overall, SARS had a fatality rate of 9.6%. As the Novel Coronavius is still a developing epidemic, the fatality rate of the Novel Coronavirus is currently unknown.
However, the total death count due to this virus has surpassed that of SARS, with over 1,370 victims worldwide. Dr. Stanton reminds us that “the coronavirus is not currently in our area, and it is mainly located in China.” To monitor the spread of diagnosed cases of the virus, Dr. Stanton recommended visiting this website that is mapping the scope of the virus.
The commonplace symptoms of the Novel Coronavirus allow it to blend into the delightful cocktail of regular flu and cold cases. Moderate upper respiratory tract infections, resulting in a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, or fever are signs of the Coronavirus as well as many other maladies. Medical professionals attribute the efficiency of this Coronavirus to its ability to behave like a flu. The Novel Coronavirus is not lethal enough to kill its host immediately; rather, the virus’ long incubation period allows the host to be in close contact with a vast number of people without becoming bedridden and too sick to contaminate. Furthermore, this means that many individuals are carriers of the virus before they actually begin to exhibit symptoms — a terrifying prospect for international forces who are attempting to stomp out the spread of the Novel Coronavirus.
The flu has been especially detrimental this past season. According to the CDC, 10,000 people have died as a result of the 2019-2020 flu season, and 180,000 people were infected with a strain of influenza. This death toll is much greater than that of the Novel Coronavirus. However, global concern regarding the virus is justifiable. Mr. Yoder explains that “the concern here is that there is a large incubation period for this virus which means you could travel long distances and come across tens of thousands of people during those trips. You could be infected but not showing symptoms. With this virus, there's a window between three and fourteen days in which you could be infected but not symptomatic.”
Furthermore, the flu shot is a vaccine designed to limit the potency of various cases of influenza. While it is not always truly effective, there is no vaccine in place to combat the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. In this past week, pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and others have begun developing possible vaccines for NCP. However, once this vaccine is created, which will likely take years, it will cost $1 billion to begin circulating the vaccine within the US. The diligent work of various institutes and companies in developing a vaccine for coronavirus would reap many benefits for world health, and would prove to be an immense help in the context of future outbreaks.
While many global health epidemics are often out of our hands, the health of our community is something we have more control over. Dr. Stanton notes that in order to avoid getting sick, “handwashing is key. Get plenty of rest and stay hydrated… if you are sick, stay home!”