An emerging infectious disease is one that has appeared recently and is significantly increasing, or at risk of significantly increasing in its incidence, or the geographic area over which it threatens to spread. Tracking these mergers of infectious diseases is crucial to the overall disease control strategy locally and globally.
Let’s take a look at coronavirus, Covid-19, to explain exactly what we mean. It’s an emerging infectious disease that could well have lain dormant, or been transmitted in very small areas, or with very few actual transmissions, for many years. However, due to a mutation, or a specific set of circumstances, it spread both in terms of jumping species, spreading rapidly amongst the new transmission group, and the geographic area over which it has prevalence spread rapidly as well. It has become an emerging infectious disease that is suddenly a threat, seemingly from nowhere.
The truth is that most emerging infectious diseases can be tracked for years prior to them becoming a serious threat to humans, as long as they are spotted.
An emerging infectious disease doesn’t also have to be new. Coronaviruses have been around forever, and it could be a re-emergence of a disease that has declined over the decades, even millennia, but suddenly is given the catalyst to spread again.
The truth is that no disease, once transmitted to humans, is ever fully eradicated. The bubonic plague is a classic example. Ask anyone in the street and they will say that was stamped out during the Middle Ages. It’s simply not true, and there were recent outbreaks in Asia Minor.
A World Health Organization report in 2007 reported that the rate at which new infectious diseases spread (or the re-emergence of old ones) is increasing at a rate that is not been seen since we started tracking infectious diseases in modern times.
However, modern tracking and focus could be why this trend seems so alarming. The truth is we simply don’t know if it’s always been this way.
However, since the 1970s it is true that more than 40 significant infectious diseases have emerged. These include the ones we have all heard of, SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu, multiple outbreaks of swine flu, and of course the recent new coronavirus strain.
What Has Caused This Perceived Uptick In Infectious Disease Emergence?
A lot of people are pointing the finger at climate change. A warming climate, alongside the rapid changing of long-term stable habitats, seems to facilitate the breeding of infectious diseases more readily.
Insects also increase in warmer temperatures. Mosquitoes transmit a range of diseases to humans, and as the planet warms, so they spread to areas of the world they have not been seen in for thousands of years.
Also, as the human race grows in size and density, infectious diseases catch hold more quickly and mutate more readily. Because they mutate more readily and faster, they develop into more serious threats at a speed that they simply couldn’t hundreds of years ago.
Also, we are in closer contact with more animals than ever before. As you may know, many infectious diseases actually start in animals, and then somehow mutate to make the jump into humans, and sometimes vice versa.
There is also the problem around antimicrobial resistance. Many of us know how antibiotics are becoming less effective against bacteria that are developing to become resistant to them. This is the same with other diseases as well. Just like us, bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms evolve to stay alive and counter threats to their existence. What worked before in terms of controlling disease easily, will not work so well now, and if we use it too much, it will become completely ineffective.
Humans Are Their Own Worst Enemies In Infectious Disease Control
You also have to add to this human stupidity. Unfortunately, even when a vaccine is available, a small group of people refuses to have it. They claim the government is trying to inject them with tracking units, or that they are poisonous, or it’s some “new world order” threat.
Whatever the reason for this mass hysteria, it means that a significant minority of the population don’t take the vaccine, and therefore allow the virus to continue spreading and evolving.
This has been a particular problem with measles vaccines in the Western hemisphere and is now spreading contagion to other vaccines including coronavirus.
These Anti Vaxxers cannot be reasoned with, and the science they point to never stacks up. But just like other extreme conspiracy theory beliefs, there is no reasoning with these people and so they remain a threat to the spread of infectious disease.
Also, as has been seen, culture plays a part in the spread of infectious diseases as they emerge. In some parts of the world, they pay respect to these viruses and stamp them out as a society ruthlessly. Sometimes this is enforced by totalitarian measures in countries like Vietnam and China, and in others through an elevated sense of social responsibility that’s spread through the population.
But particularly in Western culture, because of the culture of individualism emerging threats are slower to be stamped out because, alongside the anti-vaccination crowd, a large subset of the population simply doesn’t pay attention, believe Internet myths, or are increasingly so selfish that they don’t care unless it directly affects them.
But that’s not everyone, as has been seen recently, which offers hope for the future and a growing awareness of the social responsibility we all have.
Although people down the gym may complain, they generally understand why the gyms have to shut. The same as with other social activities Infectious disease control, especially when trying to stamp out an emerging disease is not fully understood, takes the buying of all of the population, at least enough of the majority of it for it to make a significant impact on the spread.
There’s also an increasing awareness of personal responsibility in some ways in the West, to end this on a positive note. More people are taking supplements to help their health, ranging from general supplements vitamins and minerals, through to specialist sporting supplements, alongside increased exercising, and understanding that alcohol has a significant detrimental effect on the abilities immune system.
So although there are significant problems with tracking and stopping emerging diseases, the current situation the world should actually make it easier to deal with these threats in the future as they emerge.