In the last three months, our entire lives have been upended by an organism we can’t see and little understand. In the process, it has transformed millions of us into homeschool teachers of our children, remote workers, and public policy pundits as we debate what our government officials are doing right, and wrong, in response to this global crisis.
Above all, though, the novel coronavirus has transformed us all into armchair epidemiologists. And it has shown us what heroes the real epidemiologies, the Dr. Faucis and Dr. Birxes of this world really are.
Despite the tireless efforts of some of the most brilliant epidemiologists in the world, though, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this newborn pathogen or how best to respond to it. This article discusses what we know, what we need to know, and what to do about it right now.
Table of Contents
What is Epidemiology and Why Does It Matter?
The word, “epidemiology,” has been on virtually everyone’s lips for weeks now, but it’s not a term that most of us are exactly familiar with and you may not be quite clear on what it means, exactly.
Simply put, epidemiology is the study of infectious diseases from a public health perspective. Epidemiologists study how infectious pathogens emerge, how they behave, what they do to human bodies, how they infect the body, and how they spread.
These are all vital questions, because when we know a pathogen enters the body and, essentially, hijacks the body’s vital systems, then we will be on the path to finding treatments, cures, and vaccines. Likewise, when we understand how it spreads – through the air, through touch, through contact with bodily fluids – then we can institute measures, such as social distancing, to slow or even stop the transmission.
The Birth of COVID-19
There’s still a lot that we don’t know about the novel coronavirus, including where or how it originated. The prevailing theory, though, is that the virus originated in a wild animal, probably bats or snakes, and was transferred to a human host, where it mutated to survive inside the human host and, ultimately, to be transmissible from human-to-human.
What makes the coronavirus so dangerous is precisely this newness. It is a pathogen that the human body has literally never seen before and, as such, has no antibodies to resist.
This is also why physicians and researchers are now experimenting with the use of plasma donated by COVID survivors to treat the sickest patients. The theory is that the antibodies these survivors built up to successfully fight off the disease might at least give those who are losing the battle against the pathogen something to fight with.
Tracking a Killer
When you’re fighting an infectious disease, one of the most important weapons in your arsenal, by far, is data. But when the pathogen you’re fighting is a new, or, in epidemiology-speak, a “novel” one, data is precisely what you don’t have – at least not in sufficient numbers.
So far, it’s this lack of COVID-specific data that has been our greatest challenge in this fight, both nationally and globally. Until just a few weeks ago, we, of course, didn’t even have a test to identify the virus. And though the current tests have been developed in record time, the first attempts, in early February, failed.
The lack of tests early on has put us way behind the eight ball in understanding this disease, and we are still trying to catch up. We still don’t know how many people, nationally and globally, are infected. And without that data, we can’t confidently assess how contagious, or how lethal, it really is.
Though the corona pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen in modern history, there are precedents, however. And a number of countries are successfully applying the lessons learned in previous epidemics to their response to the current outbreak.
Singapore and South Korea, for example, have been heralded for their rapid and aggressive response to the pandemic. As Europe and now the US struggle, seemingly unsuccessfully, to stem the surge, South Korea in particular achieved incomparable success in flattening the curve.
South Korea succeeded primarily because, in the aftermath of the previous SARS and H1NI epidemics, the country instituted a robust public health protocol to enable mass testing under quarantine conditions. So when an accurate test was developed, South Korea was ready. It launched drive-thru testing on a national scale, allowing public health officials to rapidly identify hot zones and institute more stringent and systematic lockdown measures in these areas. Thus, they were able to significantly slow transmission, even as the disease blazed its way across other parts of Asia, as well as Italy, Spain, and, now, the UK and US.
What to Do
As government leaders, public health officials, researchers, and healthcare workers worldwide fight the good fight to protect the human family, there are many things you can do to protect yourself and those you love.
The first word of advice is going to come as no surprise: it’s to stay at home as much as you possibly can and to keep at least six feet away from others and wear a face mask when you can’t. And, above all, it’s to wash your hands! And if you need a lighthearted reminder, just check out these riffs on the classic Neil Diamond song, Sweet Caroline!
And as you self-isolate, practice social distancing, and sanitize those hands, you can also work on guarding against the virus from the inside out. Focus on eating a balanced diet, one filled with vitamins and antioxidants. You’ll not only be nourishing your body, but you’ll also be boosting your immune system, helping your body fight the infection–or fend it off entirely.
There’s no question about it: we’re living in scary times. But stress and anxiety are only going to weaken your immune system – not to mention making life under quarantine miserable. Consider doing activities you enjoy and relax you and, if you need a bit of additional help in managing your anxiety, try a supplement demonstrated to have anxiety-reducing properties.
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