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Limiting the possibility of a dangerous pandemic


With the Ebola virus in the news recently, you may be wondering what actions you can take to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading the deadly disease. Expert Peter C. Doherty provides valuable pointers on the best ways to stay safe and healthy in this excerpt from Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know answering: Is there anything that I can do personally to limit the possibility of a dangerous pandemic?

While pandemics are by their nature unpredictable, there are some things worth considering when it comes to the issue of personal safety and responsibility. The first point is to be a safe international traveler so that you don’t bring some nasty infection home with you. Protect yourself and you protect others. Though taking the available vaccines won’t prevent infection with some novel pathogen, it will contribute toward ensuring that you enjoy a successful vacation or business trip, and it should also put you in a “think bugs” mind-set. If, for instance, you are off to Africa for a wildlife safari, make an appointment at a travel clinic (or with your primary care physician) two to three months ahead of time to check your vaccine status and, if needed, receive booster shots to ensure that your antibody levels are high. Anyone who is visiting a developing country should make sure that he or she has indeed received the standard immunizations of childhood. Adolescents and young adults are much more likely to suffer severe consequences if, for instance, they contract commonplace infections like measles or mumps that have, because of herd immunity, become so unusual in Western countries that a minority of parents reject the collective responsibility of vaccinating their kids. If you’re younger and your parents are (or were) into alternative lifestyles, it may be wise to ask them very directly about your personal immunization history.

It’s also likely that, even if you were vaccinated early on, your level of immunity will have declined greatly and you will benefit from further challenge. Both possibilities will be covered if you go to a comprehensive travel clinic, as the doctors and nurses there will insist that you receive these shots (or a booster) if you don’t have a documented recent history. Any vaccination schedule should ideally be completed at least 3 to 4 weeks ahead of boarding your flight, the time needed for the full development of immunity. But this is one situation where “better late than never” applies. Should it have slipped your mind until the last minute, you should be vaccinated nevertheless. Even if you’ve never had that particular vaccine before, some level of protection could be there within 5 to 10 days, and a boosted, existing response will cut in more quickly. A travel clinic will also sell you a Gastro (gastroenteritis, not gastronomy) kit containing antibiotics to counter traveler’s diarrhea (generally a result of low-grade E. coli infection), something to decrease intestinal/gastric motility (Imodium), and sachets of salts to restore an appropriate fluid balance.


For the elderly, be aware of the decline in immunity that happens with age. You may not respond to vaccines as well as those who are younger, and you will be at greater risk from any novel infection. Depending on your proposed itinerary, it may also be essential to take anti-malarial drugs, which generally have to be started well ahead of arrival. Malaria is not the only mosquito-borne threat in tropical countries, so carry a good supply of insect repellant. In general, think about when and where you travel. Avoiding the hot, wet season in the tropics may be a good idea, both from the aspect that too much rain can limit access to interesting sites and because more standing water means more mosquitoes. Wearing long trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and shoes and socks helps to protect against being bitten (both by insects and by snakes), while also minimizing skin damage due to higher UV levels. Then, before you make your plans and again prior to embarking, check the relevant websites at the CDC, the WHO, and your own Department of Foreign Affairs (Department of State in the United States) for travel alerts. Especially if they’re off to Asia, many of my medical infectious disease colleagues travel with one or other of the antiviral drugs (Relenza and Tamiflu) that work against all known influenza strains. These require a prescription, but they’re worth having at home anyway in case there is a flu pandemic. If that happens, the word will be out that influenza is raging and stocks in the pharmacies and drugstores will disappear very quickly. But don’t rely on self-diagnosis if you took your Tamiflu with you to some exotic place; see a doctor. What you may think is flu could be malaria.

For those who may be sexually active with a previously unknown partner, carry prophylactics (condoms) and behave as responsibly as possible. Excess alcohol intake increases the likelihood that we will do something stupid. Dirty needles must be avoided, but don’t inject drugs under any circumstances. Blood-borne infections with persistently circulating viruses (HIV and hepatitis B and C) are major risks, while insect-transmitted pathogens (dengue, Chikungunya, Japanese B encephalitis) can also be in the human circulation for 5–10 days. Apart from that, being caught with illegal drugs can land you in terrible trouble, particularly in some Southeast Asian nations. No matter what passport you carry, you are subject to the laws of the country. Be aware that rabies may be endemic and that animal bites in general can be dangerous.

Can you really trust a tattooist to use sterile needles? Even if the needles are clean, what about the inks? How can they be sterilized to ensure that they are not, as has been known to occur, contaminated with Mycobacterium chelonae, the cause of a nasty skin infection? And that was in the United States, not in some exotic location where there may be much nastier bugs around.

Peter C. Doherty is Chairman of the Department of Immunology at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and a Laureate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: Advice for Young Scientists, Their Fate is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World, and A Light History of Hot Air.

What Everyone Needs to Know (WENTK) series offers a balanced and authoritative primer on complex current event issues and countries. Written by leading authorities in their given fields, in a concise question-and-answer format, inquiring minds soon learn essential knowledge to engage with the issues that matter today. Starting July 2014, OUPblog will publish a WENTK blog post monthly.

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Image credit: Ebola virus particles by Thomas W. Geisbert, Boston University School of Medicine. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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