How do pandemics end?

by Kylie Chen (’24) | November 16, 2020

Throughout history, pandemic outbreaks have wreaked havoc and destruction throughout the world. Now, yet again, a virus has swept through countries, infecting millions worldwide. Currently, COVID-19 in the U.S. has been reaching record highs, infecting over 125,000 and killing over 1000 daily in the U.S. as of November 7. We are all waiting for this to end, but how will it end? And how can we speed up the process?

Many experts have looked to the 1918 flu pandemic to come up with the health guidelines we are using to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Occurring from 1918 to 1920, the Spanish flu pandemic was the first “true” global pandemic. This deadly strain of the influenza virus spread to every continent, devastating the global population with a mortality rate between 10 percent and 20 percent. After killing hundreds of millions, it faded away, evolving into the seasonal flu that we see every year. Because the Spanish flu was overshadowed by other global issues, such as the end of World War I, many forget the devastating impact the 1918 pandemic had on the world. However, with our current global pandemic, the methods used to prevent the spread of the flu in 1918 have been brought back to light. These methods include shutting down public areas, wearing masks, and social distancing, which proved to be effective ways of minimizing spread. The 1918 flu pandemic also showed the consequences of reopening too early—the destructive second wave of the flu in the U.S. occurred due to the premature reopening of public areas. Other flu pandemics arose after the one in 1918, but none of them matched the death toll of the original.

One of the most famous pandemics was the Black Death (or the bubonic plague). There were three major waves of the Black Death: the Plague of Justinian, the medieval epidemic, and the late 19th to early 20th-century pandemic. The plague killed millions and never completely went away, although it faded for reasons that are still unknown. Some believe that cold weather killed the fleas that carried the infection-causing bacteria, while others believe that those who survived the plague gained immunity. The bubonic plague did create advances in the medical community though, coming up with the concept of quarantine that we still use today.

While the 1918 flu pandemic and the Black Death faded or evolved, some diseases “ended” thanks to medical achievements. Among these diseases is smallpox, which now has a vaccine that grants lifelong protection from the virus. In fact, smallpox was the first virus epidemic that was defeated by a vaccine. However, before the vaccine, smallpox killed off many, including entire communities of Native Americans. Of course, with the recent sentiment against vaccination, smallpox, which the World Health Organization declared eradicated in 1980, has begun to reappear in some communities. So how can we expect our current pandemic to end? Multiple countries are developing vaccines for COVID-19, and some experts believe that this, combined with exposure, is the only way for the pandemic to come to a close. Some experts think that COVID-19, similar to the flu, will become a seasonal occurrence. The issue is that a vaccine will not be available for a while. With this in mind, how can we help minimize the spread of the virus without a vaccine? The best thing we can do is to follow the health guidelines that are given to us: wear a face mask around others, keep a six-foot distance from others, and quarantine yourself for two weeks if you or someone you have come in contact with has tested positive. These guidelines are given because they have shown to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, so it is in the best interests of everyone to follow them. All in all, we cannot be sure exactly how this pandemic will end. How many more people will get infected before a vaccine is distributed? How many more people will die before we get this pandemic under control? How much more time will we need to spend separated from others? What we do know is that in the end, we will come out of this global crisis having learned something. What we hope for is that we will come out of this pandemic even stronger than before.

Categories: Science

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