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Essay: The Modern History of Viral Epidemics and How Deadly Viruses Will Affect Us in the Future

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  • Subject area(s): Essay examples Health essays
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  • Published: 6 May 2023*
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  • Words: 1,502 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)

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INTRODUCTION

Killing over 17 million people every year – nearly twice the amount of people that cancer does, viruses are the silent killers of the 21st century. The number of deaths only shine light on a small part of the rapidly growing problem. Unlike cancer or heart disease, viruses are able to spread from person to person and will not be confined to regional outbreaks, but can become global pandemics. Every year, more than a hundred million people are infected by viruses like the influenza virus, or HIV. This is the true danger of viral diseases. Viral diseases have the potential to leave much more devastating consequences than any other cause of death, for a simple reason. They are incredibly infectious, and are able to spread rapidly, infecting millions of people at alarming rates. If a new strain of virus were to emerge, with the ability to spread quickly whilst being deadly, the impact would be catastrophic. Our world is more vulnerable to viral attacks than ever before. It is no longer a question of whether or not there will be a global pandemic – it is simply a matter of when, which virus, and how disastrous the impact will be. This essay will look at the reasons behind our vulnerability to viral diseases, why viruses pose such a large risk to humans, and what must be done.

REASONS BEHIND OUR VULNERABILITY TO VIRAL DISEASES

There are a multitude of factors contributing to our growing vulnerability to viruses in our urbanised 21st century. These factors contribute to a viral epidemic in two ways: they either increase the chances of a new strain of virus infecting humans, or they aid in the transmission of the virus.
Nearly all new viruses originate from animals. Ebola and the Coronavirus came from bats, H1N1 from the pig industry, and H5N1 from poultry. As we continue to destroy the Earth, we are inevitably causing our own demise. Industrialization, the destruction of habitats, and climate change all dramatically increases our contact with animals, and as a result, the potential for a new strain of virus to spread from animals to humans increases as well. By encroaching into animal habitats, such as through deforestation, animal populations that are starving or in need of habitats will be forced into coming to areas of human habitation in order to survive. They will feed on agricultural production, they will come into contact with humans, and they will pass viruses on to other animals and humans. That is how the ebola virus emerged. As humans invaded the bats’ habitats in an area in West Africa, the bats, who would normally not seek humans out, were forced to feed on agricultural production, passing on the ebola virus in the process. Our food trade is completely globalized, and factory farms are growing. H1N1, the swine flu, first appeared in the US in the pig industry, and spread to infect 1.3 billion people. With the natural increase in animal consumption that comes with a growing population, food industries must also increase in scope and size. The chances of viral infection from animals increases as well.

Once humans come into contact with a new strain of virus, it will spread swiftly. Our world continues to globalise at rapid speeds – this is favourable not only to governments and companies, but also to viruses. The increased mobility in our lives means that viruses have the ability to infect hundreds of millions of people in no time at all, something that was not possible back in the age of horse drawn carriages. Zika was able to make its way from Africa to Asia, South America, and across the globe in a matter of months, with the help of mosquitos and plane travel. We are more at risk to viral epidemics than we have ever been, through no one’s fault but our own. As the world becomes increasingly connected, viruses are able to spread faster than ever before, and by imposing changes onto the Earth that results in increased contact with wild animals, we put ourselves at risk of being infected by new strains of viruses, and that virus will spread seemingly overnight.

WHY VIRUSES POSE SUCH A LARGE RISK

Viruses are a much larger risk than any other health related problem such as cancer or heart disease. The reason is because viruses are infectious, and can spread from person to person. A single case has to be considered an emergency, as every new case gives rise to more cases. The flu is extremely contagious, and there are more cases of influenza in a year than there are cancer and heart disease combined, but because the mortality rate of influenza is so low, the problem is often overlooked. However, the danger of a virus depends on two things: how infectious and how deadly it is. The bird flu is very, very deadly, and the swine flu spreads very quickly. If the two were to reassort, there would be a new strain that could spread as quickly as the swine flu, but have the mortality of bird flu. A strain of flu like that could be devastating to our world, as we know that a virus would spread incredibly quickly – we have seen it happen with the coronavirus. Any new virus that emerges will not be regionally confined, and in a matter of weeks, it can become a global pandemic, infecting hundreds of millions of people, and even with a low mortality rate of 5%, it would still be able to kill millions. The loss of lives from a highly infectious virus with a high mortality rate would be unimaginable.

The way we interact with animals puts us at risk, and viruses spreading from animals to humans is inevitable. There will be a day when the virus that jumps from a pig, or a chicken, or a bat, will be one that is extremely infectious with a high mortality rate. The world is not adequately prepared for a pandemic. If a deadly and contagious virus were to emerge, it has the potential to bring humanity to its knees.

WHAT MUST BE DONE ABOUT THE PROBLEM

Even though many believe that pandemics are inevitable, that is not the case. Whilst outbreaks are inevitable – there is bound to be new strains of viruses that will emerge – pandemics are not unpreventable. We have simply chosen, by inaction, to not prevent pandemics from happening. However, we have the power to change that.

As shown by the coronavirus, our world is not adequately prepared. Our coordination and response to new outbreaks is not effective enough. Looking at our response to past pandemics, there is a clear pattern of responding to pandemics rather than preparing for them. What we have to do is be able to prevent viral outbreaks from turning into global pandemics. There are three factors that are able to make the most difference. Early identification of the virus, the precision of the diagnosis, and immediate action that must be taken. Better diagnostics are crucial to preventing outbreaks from becoming pandemics. We misidentified both Ebola and Zika. Confusing them with other diseases, we lost valuable time to contain them. After identifying the disease, we have to be able to quickly and accurately diagnose patients with the disease, in order to stop them from spreading the virus, and to contain it. Finally, action must be taken to eradicate the disease, through vaccines and containment. Smallpox is an example of the successful eradication of a disease. It is the only human disease to have been eradicated, and it was done through vaccines. However, as it takes at least nine months to develop a vaccine, containment is crucial before vaccines can be developed. There are also diseases that are unlikely to be prevented through vaccines. For those viral diseases, the only option is containment, through isolation and quarantine.

CONCLUSION

Viral pandemics are a larger problem than many realise, and it is one that is slowly getting worse. When it comes to infectious diseases, until the entire world is safe, nowhere is safe. The health system has to be better than what it is, to stop something that would otherwise be horrific.

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