Will You Survive the Next Pandemic?

I know what you’re thinking. If this is an article on how to survive the NEXT pandemic, when was the last pandemic? Was it the outbreak of Spanish flu in the early 20th century that killed tens of millions? Well, that was the most severe pandemic in modern times:

“The 1918 flu pandemic (January 1918 – December 1920) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus (the second being 2009 flu pandemic). It infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and killed 50 to 100 million of them—3 to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time—making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.” (Wikipedia)

Yes, that’s right. The most recent pandemic was in 2009, when a flu virus similar to Spanish flu — an H1N1 variant — infected millions around the world. In the U.S., an estimated 59 million were infected and over 12,000 died. [CDC via LA Times] So about 1 person in 5,000 died. Those odds are not so bad. The Spanish flu killed about 10 to 20% of infected persons.

Now suppose that the 2009 pandemic in the U.S. had killed 10% of infected persons. The result would have been about 5.9 million deaths. But wait, you say, wouldn’t a fatality rate that high be very unlikely, given the medical advancements since the time of the Spanish flu? Unfortunately, that is not the case. There is a virus spreading in the world today that has a fatality rate higher than the Spanish flu: MERS.

MERS is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, formerly called “novel corona virus”. It is similar to SARS, but much more deadly. The current death rate is over 50%, despite the fact that these victims received intensive medical treatment in hospitals. If the MERS virus spreads as widely as the 2009 pandemic in the U.S., tens of millions will die. If it spreads as widely as the Spanish flu, worldwide hundreds of millions could die. And that would be unprecedented, but entirely possible.

There are a couple of biotech companies that have untested MERS vaccine candidates. But it would take many months to vaccinate most of the 316 million persons in the U.S. And the success rate of the vaccine at preventing infection is unknown. No vaccine is 100% effective. So if the vaccine is 90% effective, 10% of the vaccinated population would still be vulnerable.

What Can You Do?

First, keep an eye on the CDC and WHO stats for the virus. See the CDC MERS virus page here and the World Health Organization MERS page here. As the number of cases increases, especially outside of the Middle East, so does the danger of a pandemic.

Second, if a pandemic occurs and affects your area, have a plan to stay home as much as possible, so that you are not as exposed to persons who might be infected. Perhaps you can telecommute or work from home in some other way. Perhaps you have some vacation and personal days you can use up.

Third, if you are sick, you can wear the soft surgical-type mask to reduce the risk of infecting others. But if you wish to avoid being infected, that type of mask does not work. You will need the N-95 type mask that is currently widely available. When the H1N1 virus was prevalent, not so many years ago, I noticed the shelves of various stores were empty of that type of mask. So you need to buy and store it in advance.

Note: The best N95 masks for protection from disease are the surgical type. A surgical N95 respirator is a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator that has also been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a surgical mask. The CDC has a list of N95 masks that also FDA approved for surgery. 3M has two surgical N95 masks, the 1860 and 1870 models. Ordinary N95 masks will filter out some bacteria, but they are not FDA approved. The surgical version of N95 masks are better. The 1860 model is available in a smaller size 1860S for a better fit on smaller faces.

Fourth, avoiding crowded locations is generally a good strategy for reducing your risk of infection from a disease that is transmitted by the air. This would mean finding some other type of transportation than subways and busses. Car-pooling would be better, but not ideal. The fewer persons you come into contact with each day — during a pandemic — the better.

Fifth, stay informed about MERS: CDC MERS Frequently Asked Questions and Answers. Note that “So far, there are no reports of anyone in the United States getting infected with MERS-CoV”, but there is also no cure and no tested and approved vaccine. CDC describes the symptoms in this way:

Q: What are the symptoms of MERS?
A: Most people who got infected with MERS-CoV developed severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. About half of them died. Some people were reported as having a mild respiratory illness.

Current Stats

MERS was first identified in Sept of 2012. By late February, 2013, there were 13 cases identified and 7 deaths. By April, both those figures more than doubled to 24 cases and 16 deaths. By the end of June, cases tripled and deaths more than doubled to 77 cases and 40 deaths. The latest figures are 90 cases and 45 deaths. (CDC data) That might seem like a 50% fatality rate (45/90=50%), but a number of those cases are new and unresolved — meaning that we don’t know how many of the newest cases will result in death. So the fatality rate is holding above 50%.

This is very serious, people.

– Thoreau

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