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An Outbreak of Outbreaks

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Lately, stories about outbreaks seem to be spreading faster than the diseases themselves. An outbreak of measles in Ohio is just part of an 18-year high of U.S. cases. Meanwhile, polio continues to circulate in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, while spreading to other countries, like Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Syria, leading the World Health Organization to declare a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” last month.

The Role of Globalization

As recent threats of H5N1, H1N1, and MERS attest, the increasingly global nature of infectious diseases presents serious risks. Foreign tourists, Americans returning home from international travel, immigrants, and refugees can all expose countries to disease.

With modern transportation shuttling people and products to nearly any part of the world in a matter of hours, the volume of these comings and goings is unprecedented. In 2008, approximately 360 million travelers entered the United States, which also takes in about 50,000 refugees annually.

It should be unsurprising, then, that the Ohio measles outbreak started when unvaccinated Amish missionaries visited the Philippines, then returned home. Infected persons spread the disease to others within their largely unvaccinated communities. The last naturally occurring U.S. outbreak of polio occurred in similar fashion: An outbreak in the Netherlands spread to Canada in 1978, then to the United States the following year, all among unvaccinated Amish populations across four states.

Compared to the United States, nations experiencing social unrest and political conflict face even more serious obstacles to preventing infectious disease.

Strife can interrupt routine vaccination campaigns, as is largely happening with polio. For example, the largest numbers of polio cases last year were in Somalia and Pakistan. Refugees and other displaced populations without health care access can create fertile settings for disease spread, especially if they’re not protected by vaccination. Health workers involved in vaccination campaigns can become targets of violence. And in some areas—Nigeria, for example—religious leaders haveconvinced their followers that the polio vaccine is a biological weaponpromulgated by the West.

For the most part, the United States doesn’t face these barriers. In America, vaccination is more of a choice. Unfortunately, some Americans are putting themselves, their families, and their communities at risk by choosing not to get vaccinated. If those who opt out of vaccination travel to areas where diseases are more common or come in contact with individuals arriving from such areas, they’ll be at risk of becoming ill from otherwise preventable diseases.Continue reading…

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