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Why ‘Herd Immunity’ Isn’t the Answer to Solve a Serious Pandemic

by John Brian Shannon

As I write this blog post (Saturday, March 14, 2020) there are 142,539 cases of the Novel Coronavirus variant 2019 (COVID-19) in the world and in some countries the total number of new cases continues to grow at a slow rate, yet in other countries the number of new cases is growing at a steady geometric rate, while in other countries new COVID-19 cases are growing at an exponential rate.

In places where COVID-19 is growing slowly, most countries have the capacity to deal with it and should see exactly as many cases treated as diagnosed. Where the virus is spreading at a geometric rate, only those healthcare systems with sufficient capacity will be able to handle that progressively larger daily number of cases, and where COVID-19 is growing at an exponential rate, about 2% of infected persons will die — because, so far, that’s the fatality rate for COVID-19 globally.

Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 Situation Summary (updated daily)

Also as of today, there have been 5,393 deaths verified as COVID-19 fatalities — although, especially in developing countries — thousands of people die every day from all sorts of things and there isn’t the capability to test the cause of each and every death. Indeed, some 29,000 people die every day from hunger alone and if they can’t solve the hunger issue in their country, trying to find funding for millions of COVID-19 test kits must surely rank farther down their priority list.

Thus far, 135 countries have reported COVID-19 cases and a report out of China says that serious illness occurs in only 16% of cases. That kind of information helps to keep the illness rate for this virus in the proper perspective.


World Coronavirus cases, March 14, 2020

Global Coronavirus case countries, March 14, 2020. Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Europe is Now the Epicentre of COVID-19 Cases Due to their ‘Herd Immunity’ Health Paradigm

Much of Europe operates their healthcare systems by purposely not treating such conditions as influenza (the flu) and other contagions, which they think is the best way to facilitate their much-vaunted ‘Herd Immunity’ goals.

And in previous decades where the vast majority of contagious diseases had low fatality rates the ‘Herd Immunity’ option was worthwhile, as everyone who subsequently caught the virus and then later recovered were thereby and automatically permanently immunized by the (terrible) experience of becoming ill and recovering courtesy of the human body’s own immune system response. Healthcare systems liked it because it was and remains the cheapest way to ‘immunize’ the public against a mild virus.

But That Was Then, And This Is Now…

During the peak Baby Boomer years, most people were young, healthy, lived in a healthier environment, and often spent considerable time outdoors which can be beneficial for human health.

In 2020, a larger proportion of people are older, less healthy, and live in a less healthy environment — although, due to advanced healthcare in most countries, people also tend to live longer lives. And for that, you can thank modern healthcare.


Global Population Pyramid 1960 & 2020

Global population pyramid 1960-2020 comparisons


In 2020, We’re Living On Borrowed Time

Millions of people return from visiting abroad every year in 2020, therefore, our species is exposed to countless more contagions — and chief among them are respiratory diseases such as influenza, SARS and MERS viruses and more recently, the latest Novel Coronavirus (which itself is a SARS-type virus) and others such as the Zika virus that made headlines a few years ago after travelling from Egypt to the United States for the first time in recorded history.

All these viruses mutate over time, and it can happen that they mutate several times in a decade. Which doesn’t bode well for the future as we’re in a permanent state of being one mutation away from extinction or something approaching that. And the leaders of healthcare systems don’t want to admit it to themselves, nor do they want to be accused of spreading panic among the general population.

So, carry on blissfully, because one day a mutated SARS or MERS virus or some other mutated and highly contagious respiratory virus may spread across the globe in a matter of days and we’ll all die horribly! Won’t that be fun? 😉

If I had told you a month ago that a Novel Coronavirus was going to spread across the globe and that the United States was going to close its airspace to European aircraft and (after tomorrow night) stop those Americans stuck in Europe from returning and simultaneously close its border with Mexico, you would’ve laughed.

After all it has never happened in recorded history, although during the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918, had there been millions of people flying around on passenger aircraft every day, the United States and other developed countries may have ceased to exist as we know them.

“The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919.
In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918.
It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.” — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Now that particular H1N1 virus variant still exists and it continues to appear from time to time in human populations. You know it as ‘the flu’ which many people are resistant to on account of their ancestors catching H1N1-1918 and their immune systems creating antibodies to combat the disease which (the antibodies to H1N1-1918) are passed to their children via Mother’s milk which is loaded with antibodies for their infants.

But not everyone is resistant, nor has everyone the same amount of immunity. In 2020, the H1N1-1918 strain no longer kills millions of people per year. That’s a benefit of so-called ‘Herd Immunity’ — whomever doesn’t get killed by it develops some amount of immunity and can pass along the antibodies to their infant children.

It’s great when it works, although the fatality numbers can get high. But ‘Herd Immunity’ was as good a method as any in 1918 to prevent further outbreaks, because medical knowledge about viruses was low and the level of medical technology was even lower.


What if COVID-19 Fatality Rates Were the Same as Ebola or Other Viral Killers?

All Europeans would be dead by now, is the short answer and North Americans would be barely hanging on.

And there are two reasons for that; One, politicians were initially slow to get the message that a major healthcare crisis was on the way (and there’s a reason for that which we’ll discuss in a moment) and Two, Europeans prefer to ignore viruses because (although small numbers of deaths occur) it helps to build a ‘Herd Immunity’ within a given country (which only works where everyone doesn’t die or are permanently maimed by the virus)

Healthcare Systems are Permanently One-Week Behind Viral Transmission

It’s nobody’s fault that the world’s healthcare systems are at a supreme disadvantage when it comes to tracking viral outbreaks.

For example, it can take a week or even longer for a person to show any symptoms at all, while some people may remain asymptomatic (without symptoms) while still passing the virus on to others wherever they go.

Not only that, but once the first case is diagnosed (patient zero) it may be days or weeks before a similar case shows up on the system.

And further, those subsequent cases may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the original viral case which makes it difficult to associate those cases together as one virus or disease, in one database.

Consequently, once healthcare systems sufficiently ramp-up to handle the epidemic (‘pandemic’ once it crosses international boundaries) the virus will still hide from Doctors and Nurses for a week or more, and in some patients, months.

Which is why it can take time to nail down a rapidly-spreading virus, especially when it’s enabled by millions of people flying from country to country carrying the virus, and in some cases, showing no symptoms while still passing-on the contagion.


What Healthcare Systems Don’t Need is Politicians Adding Another Week or Two of Dither and Delay to the Equation

If leaders of countries refuse to make timely decisions about banning flights from affected countries, it stands to reason that their country will receive evermore carriers and spreaders of the virus, thereby creating more victims in their own country. Which gets costly for healthcare systems once it gets into the thousands or millions of patients.

But that’s only if those healthcare systems choose to treat those infected patients, or (as in the European Union) where they let it run its course through the general population in hopes that fatalities will be low and large numbers of people will gain immunity after plenty of suffering by infected persons.

It’s a dangerous way to proceed, IMHO, and it isn’t for the faint of heart; Hoping that it doesn’t mutate enroute from one city to another, and hoping that not too many people die as it hits the elderly and the infirm much harder than the typical healthy person.

As I said above, it could be argued that countries once had the moral right to follow a ‘Herd Immunity’ philosophy back when there were no real alternatives, but now, in this interconnected world where millions of people fly to and from everywhere on the planet every day of the year and viruses continue to mutate completely unaware of our views on the topic, and when a virus is identified and politicians then add one or two weeks to the equation before finally making the right decision (or at least, some of the right decisions) it’s like playing Russian Roulette with the global population.

We’re only one random genetic mutation from viral annihilation! (Probably unlikely in the short term, but we almost certainly will take a major hit by 2050) Still, we can lower fatalities and huge amounts of suffering now by not employing the “Herd Immunity’ philosophy during global pandemics.

Therefore, the so-called ‘Herd Immunity’ philosophy must end where novel viruses are concerned, and the weeks of political delay prior to taking practical steps to prevent massive spreading of infected persons must end. Or we homo sapiens, will end. One day.

Remember, wash your hands often, maintain a social distance of about six feet, don’t shake hands, and don’t go on a cruise ship if you’re aged or infirm. Other than that, have a great week everyone!


Notes:

Visit the World Health Organization webpage that displays up-to-the-minute situation reports here: WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-2019) Situation Reports


Situation report – 54 Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) SitRep | Dated 14 March 2020
(This WHO link displays the most recent report as of March 14, 2020)