The history of infectious diseases is as old as human history itself. From the Black Plague that ravaged the Middle Ages to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic that claimed more lives than the Great War, these microscopic pathogens have proven time and again to be among humanity’s most cunning adversaries.

Now humanity is facing another global pandemic and, for some, this one feels more aggressive, more alarming, than other recent viral outbreaks, such as SARS, H1N1, or Ebola. It may not be the severity of the illness that is so troubling, perhaps, but the scope and rapidity of the spread.

Within a matter of weeks, and despite the closing of borders and the institution of rigorous quarantines, the novel coronavirus has escaped Ground Zero, at Wuhan, China, to penetrate virtually every corner of the globe. As the infection spreads and death tolls rise, alarmed citizens are turning to their governments not only to keep them safe but to help calm their fears.

This article explores strategies countries and scientific communities across the globe are using to combat the spread of infectious diseases. Understanding the systems already in place, as well as those currently in development to combat COVID-19, will help to protect against our greatest current threat: panic.

Travel Bans and Restrictions

One of the first and most important measures countries can take in the face of any burgeoning epidemic is to restrict travel across its borders. In New Zealand, for example, a temporary travel ban has been implemented on travelers arriving from China, the epicenter of the outbreak. The country has also evacuated its citizens from hard-hit areas and will hold them in quarantine for a period of at least 14 days to slow the spread of the virus within its borders.

New Zealand, though, is far from the only country to limit access in the face of coronavirus. An increasing number of countries are closing their borders or imposing travel restrictions to help contain the spread.

Treatment and Vaccine Research

COVID-19 Vaccination
Isolating the origins of the virus and mapping its genome are essential first steps in developing effective therapies for those already infected, and vaccinations for those who haven’t yet succumbed. Photo: Wikimedia

It isn’t enough just to try to close the borders. In an increasingly interconnected world, sealing off a border entirely is an impossibility, anyway. So while travel bans and restrictions may be an important early stopgap, they’re only going to slow the spread, not prevent it entirely.

That’s where the scientists come in. Researchers from around the world are seeking to isolate the origins of the virus and map its genome. These are essential first steps in developing effective therapies for those already infected, and vaccinations for those who haven’t yet succumbed.

Current research suggests that the virus may derive from a food market in central Wuhan, potentially originating from the consumption of snakes purchased from the market. Understanding how the virus emerged is not only critical to developing treatment strategies, but it’s also key to preventing future outbreaks.

Testing and Containment

Because the coronavirus appears to be easily transmissible, and because patients may be infectious even before symptoms develop, early and widespread testing is imperative to control the spread. In South Korea, for instance, individuals who suspect they may have the virus are able to be tested from the security of their own cars, before returning home to self-quarantine until the results are in. An estimated 100,000 tests have already been performed in South Korea, and this drive-thru process is already working to slow the spread and reduce the death toll.

In the US, however, the government has faced criticism for its lack of test kits and the slow and unreliable testing process. Currently, those who fear they may be infected are still required to visit a hospital or doctor’s office for testing. This potentially puts everyone with whom they come into contact at risk.

What You Can Do

As much as governments, scientists, and healthcare providers are doing to combat the pandemic, you also have an important role to play in protecting yourself and your loved ones from the virus.

First and foremost, now is the time to take up your hygiene game. That includes not touching your face, avoiding handshakes and hugs, keeping a distance of 3 to 6 feet from other people whenever possible, and always sneezing and coughing into your arm or a tissue that you immediately throw away. It also means being absolutely meticulous about handwashing and hand sanitizing, especially when touching surfaces in public areas.

Protection also needs to happen at work. Whenever possible, try to limit your exposure to those who may be showing symptoms or who have recently traveled to affected areas. Speak with your employer about the possibility of telecommuting until the epidemic passes. Above all, safeguard your own health to ensure you have the resistance to fight this virus should you be exposed: make sure you are eating healthily and getting adequate sleep.

Frankie Wallace

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