Viral outbreaks have been around for centuries, and the impact of an epidemic can be devastating to the population when not contained. Historically, a lot of these outbreaks resulted in plagues that swept over nations, and because the science behind mitigating them wasn’t developed yet, common historical outbreaks like the Bubonic Plague and Cholera even extended their reach, causing new epidemics and pandemics throughout the ages. (Think: Black Death, Plague of Justinian, Scarlet Fever and Smallpox, just to name a few).
Today, we have an arsenal of knowledge, technology and scientific developments at our fingertips, including vaccines, which can help combat disease when it strikes. Even so, the steps on what to do when there’s a viral outbreak are a bit hazy for all of us. And for traveling medical professionals, it’s hard to know how to react when a viral outbreak occurs.
Traveling When An Epidemic Strikes
Before we get loose lipped with our terminology, it’s important to understand just what exactly is considered an epidemic or a pandemic and how these viruses spread over time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), epidemics occur when there is a rapid spread of an infectious disease to mass quantities of people in a community, country or area in a short amount of time. A pandemic occurs when the disease spreads across multiple regions or worldwide. Examples of the biggest epidemics and pandemics throughout history are: Smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, diphtheria, polio, different mutating forms of the influenza virus (Spanish flu and Asian flu), measles and pertussis (whooping cough). From 2000 onward, the biggest outbreak concerns have been the ongoing HIV/AIDs crisis, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). And now, the most recent outbreak is COVID-19, more commonly known as coronavirus.
Viral outbreaks in the news today
Reading the news in 2020, it’s hard to miss the constant updates of coronavirus sweeping the world. Key headlines like, “What to Know About the Coronavirus Outbreak” and “How to Prepare for the Next Global Viral Outbreak” have been all over the internet and the nightly news. Here’s the basic rundown on coronavirus.
COVID-19 is a part of the coronavirus family and has never been encountered before. It originates from animals and those who were initially infected worked or shopped often in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan, China. Direct spread of the COVID-19 virus had occurred in part because of patients admitted to a surgical department in Wuhan. Their symptoms were suspected as other illnesses at first, therefore precautions were not met to prevent the virus from spreading until it was too late. Now, coronavirus has spread globally and the diagnosis numbers have been climbing rapidly. As of February 2020, the New York Times has reported in an article that the deaths in China due to coronavirus have surpassed the tolls from SARS.
In a briefing at the end of February regarding coronavirus in the U.S., Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC said, "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more really a question of when it will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness."
On Wednesday, March 11, 2020 Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared a pandemic as the global death toll continued to rise and the number of confirmed cases exceeded 121,000.
Symptoms of coronavirus are pneumonia-like. Coughing, fever and difficulty breathing are the most common symptoms and in severe cases, organ failure has been reported. Antiviral drugs meant for the flu will not work against coronavirus, so the recovery from this illness depends on immune system strength, making those with compromised immune systems and older people (65+ years) especially susceptible.
What makes this coronavirus so concerning is the ability to carry and spread the virus with little or no symptoms, no more than a common cold.
One of the biggest questions medical travelers have is about traveling during an epidemic. When your entire career is wrapped up in healthcare and traveling, it’s important to stay updated on viral outbreaks that could potentially affect your lifestyle.
The news of viral outbreaks can put people on edge about their upcoming plans. It’s easy to get alarmed during an outbreak, especially when a lot is still unknown and constantly changing. Protecting yourself should be a top priority, but even moreso, being knowledgeable about your own health and doing your best to avoid spreading germs to others too. Which means medical travelers and everyone else thinking of jetsetting during this time should be aware and stay updated on new news of the virus. It's beneficial to use precautions laid out by the CDC and WHO: avoid large gatherings and heavily-populated events, practice social distancing, self-quarantine if you think you're infected, wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitzer, and keep your own germs contained (sneezing or coughing into your sleeve.)
In an article by Vox, infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at Harvard said it is "plausible" for 20 to 60 percent of adults to be infected with COVID-19. Because this is a rapid speed of infection, hospitals could become overwhelmed with cases. In an effort to keep the virus at bay, self-quarantine, school closings and event cancellations have been implemented. This strategy is called "flattening the curve" according to the CDC:
Besides practicing precaution and "flattening the curve" healthy medical travelers can help during an epidemic. Those in a medical profession have the knowledge and skillset to lend aid to areas affected by viral outbreaks and to help prepare areas that may be affected going forward. Several healthcare facilities have been overwhelmed with battling the COVID-19 outbreak and concerns of lack of resources. Hospitals across the country are meeting daily for check-ins on emergency preparedness. Nearly everyone is responsible for supplies and hospital cleanliness and everyone is a part of making sure their hospital’s emergency plans are updated. As a medical traveler, you can offer your help in an "all hands on deck" situation.
Healthcare professionals can be diligent in getting the details of travel history in their patients who have fevers and respiratory illness, and they can help facilities that may be overrun with patients during this pandemic. When an outbreak strikes, area labs are overrun with work and samples to be tested. Epidemiologists and lab travelers can help run testing for viral outbreaks, so these labs don’t get backed up with work.
WHO has a great, lengthy interactive on managing epidemics and pandemics that is full of facts and tools about viral diseases.
The fact is, outbreaks can spread more than we may think. They can be devastating, evolving into pandemics quickly. The best way to fight COVID-19 right now is to stay updated on current events and news, exercise precaution and kindness and help out when you can, where you can. You can visit the CDC’s current outbreak list and stay updated with an interactive map of outbreak deaths and recoveries.