Of Epidemics And The End Of The World

Sure, pandemics can be scary and shouldn’t be taken too lightly. But don’t let Hollywood-style hysteria take over either.


AsianScientist (Jun. 26, 2014) – We are in the midst of another viral epidemic. This time, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak. It is frightening because we could die from it. it is frightening because we don’t know if the person sitting next to us on the plane has MERS or not. It is frightening because we know very little about it and how it spreads.

Frightening—and exciting.

When I chose to go into public health, my aunt had said to me “oh, so you will be doing work just like those people in the movie Contagion?”

Sort of. Except my job doesn’t include interaction with Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. My current job involves looking at how health outcomes among communities can be improved for people with complex, high-cost health needs at a lower cost. It’s not precisely the sweat-inducing stuff of epidemic investigations or Hollywood movies, but it is a start. After all, chronic diseases are the main causes of death in both developed and developing countries now.

Pandemic panic

Although chronic disease is the leading cause of death in many countries, it does not elicit the same mass frenzy and moral panic among people the way viral outbreaks do. For instance, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 elicited a hysterical response comparable to that of the discovery of AIDS in the 1980s. The threat of pandemics and epidemics has always loomed over mankind’s fragile existence. Hollywood has played no small part in fanning the fervent imagination of many, too. Wasn’t the world supposed to end in 2012?

The actual definition of epidemic and pandemics has been lost in a sea of mass hysteria—moral panic, if you will. Whenever “epidemics” are written or spoken about, a catastrophic, Contagion-esque, 2012-esque image is typically conjured in the mind’s eye. Epidemics are defined technically by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” Pandemics are “epidemics that have spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

The meanings of pandemics and epidemics have been argued over endlessly. In 2009, the H1N1 flu outbreak was a pandemic: it spread over several continents and affected a large number of people. Approximately 15,000 people died around the world from H1N1. Yet, the WHO received some heavy criticism from the public, who suggested that they had created a false alarm and had manipulated the public into thinking that the danger was greater than it truly was. A PLOS study estimated that the infection rate was half what it was expected to be–21 percent instead of 50 percent. This may be true, but the H1N1 flu outbreak was, by all means and definitions, a pandemic because there were an increased number of cases of H1N1 across several countries.

Moral panic among previously affected countries is–to a certain extent–reasonable. In the light of the MERS outbreak, countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore are preparing for the worst. The 2001 SARS outbreak left an indelible scar on these nations. No disease is too small to cause worry among the residents of these densely populated countries. When SARS first appeared in China in 2003, it was dubbed “severe acute nervousness syndrome” because of the intense anxiety and nervousness that accompanied the physical symptoms of the disease.

In a similar fashion, many in South Korea harbor the same sort of anxiety: a sharp decline in spending, a lack of willingness to gather in shopping malls or in the streets, harking back to the days of SARS in Southeast Asia when very, very few people rode the trains for fear of infection.

Keep calm and carry on

Could a Contagion scenario ever occur and wipe out a significant portion of the planet? Some epidemiologists think so. And if that doesn’t bring about the End of Days, then there’s even evidence of a Sixth Mass Extinction.

Mass calamity aside, it is hoped that the emergence of this new outbreak will not be met with immediate knee-jerk hysterical responses, but with informed caution. After all, history and viral outbreaks tend to repeat.

This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Geoff Stearns/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Annabel is currently a 2nd year Masters in Public Health student at Yale University. She received her MEng in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London in 2010. She spent the summer of 2014 researching substance abuse in Tanzania. She has a keen interest in food, yoga and metal music.

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