We were recently interviewed by our good friend Denob, host of The Canadian Prepper Podcast and www.preparedcanadian.com. Although the talk ranged on a wide variety of topics, Denob asked me 5 very relevant questions about pandemics, especially influenza. Here’s a link to the entire Canadian Prepper Podcast episode:
I really haven’t discussed pandemics on the website in a while, so I thought this was a good opportunity to bring up the subject in an easy-to-read question and answer format. This is, pretty much, what you need to know about pandemics that might affect us in the uncertain future.
A pandemic is an outbreak of an infectious disease that has spread through the population of a large region. When a new influenza virus emerges, a flu pandemic can occur that can rapidly go global. If the virus is a new type, those exposed have little to no immunity against it, and deaths begin to mount up.
For general info about influenza, see our series of articles on the subject. Click here for part 1: Influenza
1) How do pandemics spread?
Pandemics caused by Influenza viruses are spread by air droplets expelled by sick individuals while coughing or sneezing. They can travel several feet and can remain alive on surfaces for 24 hours or so. It just takes one sick person to cause a global pandemic if they are around large groups of people.
Pandemics used to take a while to spread from region to region, but the advent of commercial air travel now makes it possible for a disease to spread around the globe in a matter of hours. The rapidity of spread underscores the importance of having a plan of action BEFORE the disease strikes your area.
2) We’ve been hearing a lot about “H” this, “N” that lately…what do those letters and numbers mean?
Influenza A viruses, the most common, are divided into subtypes, based on the nature of certain proteins that exist on their surface. These are called Hemaglutinins and Neuraminidases, (HA and NA for short). There are 16 different HAs and nine NAs which have been identified so far, and your protection against one virus subtype does not necessarily work against another.
Currently, subtypes H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2 are commonly found in people. Other subtypes are found mostly in animals. The H2N2 subtype, which started in the Far East and caused its damage between 1957-1968, seem to no longer be found in humans. H1, H2, and H3 are responsible for the three major pandemics of the last century.
During recent outbreaks of certain bird influenzas, there have been occasional transmissions of some other new strains to humans. Influenza A viruses, by the way, are known to also infect a variety of other mammals, including non-human primates, pigs, cats, weasels, horses, and even seals and whales.
3) Should we be worried about current influenza strains developing into killer pandemics?
Makeshift Pandemic Ward
Lately, the predominant influenza strains currently have had a very low death rate, with victims mostly occurring among the elderly and very young. Any influenza virus, however, can mutate. When they do, the amount of deaths they cause depends on how different they are from the previous year’s virus. When they’re very similar from year to year, this is called antigenic drift. When a major mutation occurs, we call it antigenic shift. These affect young adults more often and are the viruses that cause killer pandemics, mostly because we haven’t developed immunity or resistance to the virus’s reproduction in the body.
Smallpox is a virus similar to a severe case of chickenpox. It was so common in Europe that it killed only a minority of people once a region became resistant to it, but when Native Americans in the new world came in contact with explorers and colonists, it wiped out 95% of entire populations in certain areas because they have never been exposed to anything like it. Spreading viruses was even an early type of biological warfare. Smallpox-ridden blankets were given to troublesome native tribes in the hopes that they would get the disease and be easier to conquer.
4) What supplies should we be stocking up on?
N95 and Earloop Masks
For influenza outbreaks, a good supply of N95 and Earloop masks, gloves (nitrile, not latex), and disinfectants would be very useful for prevention purposes. In survival scenarios, planning out a sick room is very important as well.
Hopefully, when the you-know-what hits the fan, you’ll have made or quickly make the decision to bug in or bug out. If you’re staying in place, pick a sick room. I would choose a place at one end of the house; a room with a window or two to allow light and ventilation and a door that can be closed. If you bugging-out, choose a hospital tent and place it on the periphery of your camp.
Making these decisions BEFORE things go bad is important, as you will inevitably be kicking someone out of their room or tent if you don’t. As such, you can expect resentment at a time when everyone needs to pull together to survive.
If you don’t have a spare room or tent, you’ll have to raise a makeshift barrier, such as a sheet of plastic, to separate the sick from the healthy. Even if you have a dedicated sick room, this might make sense to hang over the door for when you go in and out. You’ll want to keep the injured separate from those with infectious diseases such as influenza/pneumonia, although sometimes wounds will become infected.
Furnishings should be minimal, with a work surface, an exam area, and bed spaces. Cloth surfaces, such as you see in sofas, carpets, etc. can harbor germs and should be avoided if possible. Even bedding for the contagious might best be covered in plastic. The more areas that can be wiped down/disinfected easily, the better (try to do that daily with a carpet!). It’s important to have a way to eliminate waste products from your bedridden patients, even if it’s just a 5 gallon bucket and some bleach. Have closed containers available to put used sick room items.
A station near the entrance of the room or tent for masks, gloves, gowns, and disinfecting would be very helpful. You’ll need a basin with water, soap or other disinfectant, and towels that should be kept for exclusive use by the caregiver. There should only be one person in your group involved in caring for the sick.
Many people consider medical supplies to consist of gauze, tourniquets, and battle dressings, but you must also dedicate sets of sheets, towels, pillows, and other items to be used in the sick room. Keep these items separate from the bedding, bathing, and eating materials of the healthy members of your family or group. This may seem excessive to you, but you may save the life of a loved one or even your entire group if you are diligent in putting together your medical stores.
Cleaning supplies should also be considered medical preparedness items. You’ll want to clean the sick room as well as possible on a daily basis. Clean hard surfaces that may have germs on them with soap and water, or use other disinfectants. These include doorknobs, tables, sinks, toilets, counters, and even toys. Wash bed sheets and towels frequently; boil them if you have no other way to clean them. Consider bedding and clothes of the ill to be infected, and wash/disinfect your hands right after touching them. Ditto for plates, cups, etc. Any equipment brought into the sick room should stay there.
5) How can we protect ourselves from contracting dangerous diseases?
In the case of influenza, good respiratory hygiene is the key. Practicing good hygiene is not only a good strategy for you and your family, but demonstrates social responsibility. All those Asians walking around with masks in public are doing their community a service by decreasing the spread of disease. Some important things people should do:
Sick individuals should cover their mouth and nose with tissues and dispose of those tissues safely.
Use a mask if coughing. Although others caring for the sick individual may wear masks (N95 masks are best for healthcare providers), it is most important for the afflicted person to wear one.
Have caregivers perform rigorous hand hygiene before and after every contact with patients. Wash with soap and warm water for 15 seconds or clean your hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Sick persons should keep at least 4 feet away from other persons, if possible, due to droplet spread.
Wash down all possibly contaminated surfaces such as kitchen counters or doorknobs with an appropriate disinfectant (dilute bleach solution will do).
Isolate the sick individual in a specific quarantine area, especially if he/she has a high fever.
Have medical care providers wear gloves at all times when treating the patient.
Keep bedding and eating utensils for patients separate from those used by healthy family members.
Keep track of any new diseases that may be invading your hometown. Have a plan of action in place, and you can prevent your family from becoming the next casualty.
Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones the Disaster Doctor