Your Health Checkup: What You Need to Know about Epidemics and Pandemics

Deficiencies in health care, unfounded distrust of vaccinations and health services, and poor health infrastructure contribute to the growing risk of a global pandemic.


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My wife and I just received our annual flu shots along with a pneumonia vaccination for good measure.

As a physician — no, even as an average adult – the controversy surrounding vaccinations continues to astound me. Vaccination ranks as one of the all-time greatest medical breakthroughs, along with the discovery of antibiotics, statins and other innovative medical accomplishments. Yet, many people fail to take advantage of this simple life-saving technique Edward Jenner discovered in 1796. How parents can risk their children’s health and lives by refusing to have them vaccinated is beyond my comprehension. The myth that vaccination increases the risk of autism has long been disproven. Failure to vaccinate exposes the population to the threat of contracting measles, mumps, and other preventable diseases, as recent experience has shown.

Sadly, in many parts of the world and for many infections, preventive measures such as vaccinations don’t exist. Poorer countries often cannot adequately contain some infections because they lack basic primary health care or health infrastructure or have deep-seated distrust of health care services. These deficiencies raise the specter of a global pandemic; i.e., a disease that could spread from one country to many or even worldwide.

For example, the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, the so-called Black Death, killed an estimated 50 million people, as did the influenza pandemic in 1918. It has been estimated that a contagion in the world today similar to the 1918 flu could kill as many as 80 million people and wipe out five percent of the global economy.

Modern examples of epidemics include Ebola infections in Western Africa (though, excitingly, a preventative vaccine may be on the horizon), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and mosquito borne diseases like dengue, chikungunya, and Zika. Tick and mosquito borne illnesses have more than tripled in the U.S. since 2004. Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is an example of such a mosquito borne virus that appears to be on the rise with at least ten cases and two deaths noted in Massachusetts. EEE causes brain swelling with a 30 percent mortality. Health officials in Florida have issued an advisory about such mosquito borne illnesses, citing concern with all standing water containers such as bird baths, pools, and garbage cans in which mosquitos can breed, and advising people to keep skin covered with clothes and/or insect repellents when outside.

Population density and worldwide travel facilitate rapid transmission of such infections, as does global warming, which promotes mosquito growth and increases the risk of mosquito borne diseases. A panel of international experts concluded recently that the world is ill prepared to handle a pandemic of major magnitude. Control of insect and animal populations that harbor and spread these infections is critical and must be maintained despite political, weather, or other distractions. So must the level of vaccination. We cannot just increase efforts to contain a contemporary risk and then let our guard down when the risk diminishes.

My advice: do your part. Get vaccinated and make sure your children do as well.

Featured image: Shutterstock.

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  1. I also find controversy and reluctance to get the flu shot as absurd as can be, especially in this day and age; for all of the valid reasons you mention in this enlightening article. The simple (but unfortunate answer) is that people are getting more and more stupid by the day, Dr. Zipes.


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