The Petri Dish of 7 Billion People


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Within the past month or so, the United Nations issued that the world population had expanded to roughly 7 billion people. Reaching this historic landmark does not come without it's share of consequences.  As we discussed in class earlier this week during the "zombie" lecture, the large and dense world population of present day makes increases the likelihood of contracting a contagious disease.

When Andrew was discussing this idea during the past week, it reminded me of when I traveled abroad in 2009.  I had a fantastic opportunity to go to China (the world's most populous country) for 17 days between my junior and senior year of high school with People to People, a student ambassador program.  The trip was life-changing to say the least.  I didn't want to leave by the end of the trip, but the culture shock when I first arrived was pretty hard to ignore. 

We left Pittsburgh and, through a series of layovers and connecting flights, arrived in Hong Kong in July 2009.  This was during the time when "swine flu," or H1N1, was prevalent in the United States.  My area didn't seem to get hit that hard by H1N1.  Of all the people I knew from school, only one or two that I knew of said they had it.  They were able to recover within a few days having seen a doctor and taken proper medication.  I honestly didn't think it was that big of a deal.

Our chaperon for the trip warned us ahead of time what to expect when traveling to China during this outbreak... however, I didn't expect it to be quite this extreme.  Once we touched down in Hong Kong, two or three officials got on the plane with these laser gun type things.  They came around and shot a little laser on the forehead of anyone who was traveling from the States.  This was a way to take our temperature before we could leave the plane.  Anyone running even a slight fever would immediately be quarantined at the Chinese airport.  This was something that our chaperon could not stress enough-- DO NOT GET SICK!  Stay healthy, drink lots of water and eat right because, if anyone was quarantined  we would surely miss our connecting flight to Beijing.

Once we were given the OK to exit the plane, we had to run through the airport to our next flight.  Nearly every person in the airport I saw was wearing a mask.  This was crazy!  I didn't even think that H1N1 was that big of a deal, at least where I was from!  Once we landed in Beijing, they checked us again with the lasers.  When we got off the plane, I saw this Public Service Announcement playing on practically every TV in the airport.




WHAT THE HECK?!  This was all too weird.  Our temperature was checked at several other locations throughout our journey (some of the hotels, I think possibly at the train station, etc.,) but it was definitely more hyped up at the airport than anywhere else.

So, with this in mind, I wondered: how big of an effect did H1N1 really have in China, as well as the United States?  

Initially the Swine Flu started in Mexico, with April 15, 2009 being the first recorded case in the U.S.  According to flu.gov, 74 different countries were affected by the influenza.  The U.S. government declared that H1N1 was a "public health emergency" on April 26, 2009.  In June 2012, the CDC estimated the global death toll of the disease to be around 284,000.  The same article pointed out that Africa and Southeast Asia accounted for over half the deaths even though they have 38% of the world's population.


The avian flu and SARS outbreak of previous years led the Chinese government to face the problem head-on.  Although many had criticized the Chinese government's methods of handling the outbreak (by way of quarantines and school cancellations), this Time Magazine article explains that the Chinese government had reported only 36 deaths from 62,800 cases of H1N1 as of the article's publication in November 2009.  Both the deaths and instances of the flu are significantly less than in the United States, where there were 4,000 deaths in 22 million cases, also by November 2009.  The Chinese government urged 11 different biotech companies to develop a vaccine for the flu early in 2009, which they distributed to nearly 12 million people.  China was the first country to have a vaccine for the illness in September of that year. The World Health Organization declared the worldwide H1N1 pandemic to be over in August of 2010. 

After doing a little bit of research, it became apparent to me that H1N1 was certainly a "bigger deal" than I initially thought.  I suppose some of the hysteria I experienced in China (especially in Hong Kong) is warranted considering the effect that SARS had on the region years earlier.  The SARS outbreak induced such a panic that the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup was actually moved from China to the United States.

H1N1 virus
photo courtesy of http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/images/B00526_H1N1_flu_sml.jpg

However, despite all of this evidence of the severity of the outbreak, it seems that the actions taken by the government were not necessarily the best measures.  Many people in Hong Kong believed the wearing of masks to be an element of best practice. I found this study, which was conducted by several researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and published in the Elvesier Journal of Infection. It is related to public perception of containment in Hong Kong, and shows a definitive misconception about the spread of the disease.  Until reading this study, I was unaware the the H1N1 was not an  airborne or waterborne illness and was more often spread by touching contaminated objects or by touching one's noise or eyes.  The study showed a public propensity toward wearing face masks and the public's approval of drastic quarantining measures by the government to inhibit the spread of the flu.  The researchers demonstrated that there was a misconception among the participants that H1N1 was as deadly as SARS.  Even though Hong Kong was an "international hub" that was considered a likely hotspot of an H1N1 outbreak at the time of publication, perceived susceptibility by the public was low because they believed they were being over-cautious.  Even though the disease was not as fatal as SARS, it still had a very likely chance of spreading.

In the end, I feel naive to have not understood the magnitude and impact that H1N1 had on the United States as well as the international community.  Though not as deadly as other outbreaks, H1N1 still serves as a reminder that the potential for a pandemic is very high, especially in a world of 7 billion people.

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