How to Survive a Pandemic

In the world of phobias and disaster preparedness, perhaps no tragedy is as terrifying as a plague. It does make a certain amount of sense. We can spot sharks, blast zombies and reinforce our subduction zone skyscrapers. But microscopic bacteria? An undetectable parasite? How can you defend yourself against what you don’t even know is on you? These diseases can seem so frightening because we never truly comprehend our risk level until it is too late. 

But there is some hope. Science and modern medicine have made leaps in the field of treatment. Not to mention there are numerous tried and true methods that will prevent both the severity and likelihood of infection. Still, surviving a real pandemic goes way beyond that. It is about keeping up and recognizing the warning signs before it becomes too late to get yourself the help you need. So let’s cover all the bases today, starting off with Rule #1 for surviving a pandemic, which is:

Keep abreast of the news, both internationally and domestic

They say knowledge is power, but it is even more than that. Knowledge is a lifesaver. If you are planning to holiday in Kenya or Uganda it will do you well to keep up with the local goings on in the communities you plan to visit. Venture beyond the usual vaccination precautions and look at location-specific diseases. Hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola or Marburg often occur in localized outbreaks that should be easily avoidable if you’re keeping your eye on the nearby scene. These maladies go far beyond any level of acceptable risk exposure (like dysentery or malaria –which are both treatable and survivable). If you are exposed these diseases they have a fatality rate of up to 95% and there is no known effective cure.

But what if you’re already immersed in a region and you fear an outbreak might occur? During the swine flu outbreak in Mexico, I emailed a friend who lives in Guadalajara to ask how bad it was from a local perspective. I had an impending date with Mexico City and did not want to cancel my plans if it was 80% media hype. “Look” he told me, “in this country, by the time the government is willing to acknowledge there’s a problem the horse hasn’t just left the barn, he’s halfway across the state.” Which brings us to rule #2:

Know what the warning signs of an impending outbreak are

Oftentimes in rural communities or developing countries. the real news is not discussed on the nightly newscast (which is subject to government censorship) but by word of mouth. Stay aware of what’s going on by connecting to the community around you. Chat with the hotel clerk, the shop owners, the baker, and if you hear rumblings of a flu, see an increase in hygienic face masks and notice an upswing in flu-like symptoms (sniffles, coughing, or vomiting) in public spaces, take precautions. Consult with the locals and make sure you always have the means to leave the country should you need to jump ship in a hurry. But what if it’s too late? What if the ship has sailed and you’re now stuck in a community where a disease is running rampant?

Know your diseases

It will be useful if you to have at least a rudimentary knowledge in the differences between diseases. Understanding how different sicknesses operate and spread can save your life if you’re unable to leave a highly contagious zone. First ask yourself if your  dealing with a bacterial infection, or virus/parasite. Is it air borne? Spread through food and water or spread only through bodily fluids like blood, semen, or vomit? Can the virus be treated with antibiotics or is it something that can only be managed with rest and plenty of fluids? Make sure that you get these facts and educate yourself on the proper course of treatment.

In the hotbed

So you’re stuck in a contagious zone and you have no way to escape in the foreseeable future, let’s keep you healthy! Luckily the basic common sense ways you stay healthy work regardless of if you’re in New York City or Islamabad. The basics are:
* Wash your hands often with warm water and and soap
* Do not linger around anybody showing signals of infection regardless of how rude or inconvenient it may seem.
* Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth often as this will transfer the germs and bacteria from your hands (which are generally protected from infection by your skin) into your body, where it will be able to infect you.
* Encourage those who are sick to remain at home. Yes, I am talking to you, overbearing managers of the world, who often demand workers come in despite their pleas of needing rest.
* Keep your immune system in tip top shape. Getting proper nutrition, vitamins, and minerals is vital for keeping your system chugging along. Enough sleep, exercise and abstaining form gratuitous cigarette and alcohol consumption will also help regulate and maintain your immune system.

You’ve gotten sick, now what?

So you did what you could, but nature ran her course and that tickle in your throat has turned into an all out esophageal mutiny. First thing first, make sure you realize just how fallible the human body is. Do not think you are a stoic island of self-sufficiency. If you get ill while in your hometown and you live alone, make sure you rely on your friends and family in the region for help. If you are in a foreign country and you don’t know anybody, you can always call the hotel clerk and ask for a doctor. If you are in a remote country or village, make sure notify locals around you of your condition. Once, while in a hotel in Ouarzazate, Morocco I failed to leave my guesthouse room for two days, assuming I could blaze through what turned out to be amoebic dysentery. Luckily the housekeeper was kind enough to realize that something was really wrong with me and contacted a doctor to come to my aid. However, I could have saved myself a month of recuperation if I had only asked the people around me for help. But please, if you are dealing with a flu or influenza, stay home. Do not leave your house unless you absolutely have to, so you cut down the risk of infecting others.

Maintain a positive attitude

The human immune system is absolutely amazing. The endurance and survival instinct it almost second to none. Even in the most dire of circumstances, there is almost always a chance that you can survive. Just make sure you remain aware of your surroundings, especially in small villages and developing nations, always practice the basics of disease prevention, and if you do get sick, seek help before your condition deteriorates to the point you are no longer able to care for yourself. Good luck, and I wish you the very best of health in the future.

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

3 replies on “How to Survive a Pandemic”

Did you see that show After Armageddon (or somesuch) on History Channel? It basically showed how a regular American family would handle the outbreak and aftermath. I think theirs was an epidemic, though, because n their scenario, they also had to deal with the collapse of society due to the decimated population and the breakdown of services due to most public workers abandoning their posts to be with their families/save their asses.

Anyway, uh. Scary stuff! Also this post is well timed because the American CDC just put out a new thing about emergency preparendess in which they reference zombies. I think it was just to get the attention of a younger (or more zombie-aware) audience.

Oh, and the CDC traveler’s health website is always a great resource before traveling, to know what vaccines you may need and what diseases are a current threat in a region. They have info on different countries and regions, a locator for travel clinics, and an up-to-date list of current outbreaks.

For something a little more academic, check out the CDC’s publication “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.” The “Notes from the Field” subsection details updates on current outbreaks. That’s where I turned for info on swine flu when I wanted the facts devoid of media hysteria.

The World Health Organization also has a bulletin on outbreaks (there was a case of Ebola in Uganda last week! Scary!):

Okay, I’ll stop. Clearly, you’ve touched on my pet topic. :)

Your tips pretty much describe me during cold&flu season. Handwashing is so key, to avoid a lot of different types of infections. Always travel with hand sanitizer as a back-up. Sometimes there is no running water. A little bottle of Purell once became my lifesaver when I was volunteering in a rural medical clinic that had no running water.

Another standard travel precaution is to know what food and water is safe in the places you’ll be staying. Some of the same things that can save you from traveler’s diarrhea can also help you avoid something much worse like cholera.

I think the underlying advice here is that knowledge is power, which is so true in this context. So many highly dangerous infectious diseases start with flu-like symptoms that it’s wise to know if something more sinister than the flu is going around. (although the flu ain’t no joke itself).

You should also be cognizant of wild animals… are they turning up sick or dead? And know what you’re being offered to eat. Don’t eat brains, even if they’re a local delicacy.

Also, beware of hospitals, especially emergency room waiting areas. That sounds counter-intuitive, but hospitals (and their staff) are often at the center of big outbreaks. Particularly if something is airborne, and/or you’re in a region without well-trained healthcare workers. My local hospital wisely made any patients with flu-like symptoms don masks while waiting in the ER during the swine flu pandemic, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen everywhere, particularly not at the beginning of an outbreak. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go to a hospital if you need to see a doctor, of course.

Personally, I fear that I’m doomed if a worldwide pandemic hits my city. I rely on public transportation, and it’s clear that even if I could avoid the germ-laden poles, 50% of the adult population never learned from their mommas not to cough without covering their mouths.

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