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Pandemic Disease Vectors

We tend to think of disease as something that one person gives to another, and that is certainly very true. Many of the major pandemic diseases spread this way. But you need to understand all the various transmission methods if you really want to stay safe. But don't descend into paranoia either. Don't start a hard-core protection strategy unless you seriously suspect that one of these contagious diseases in your area.

Person-to-Person

For diseases like measles, tuberculosis, ebola, the various flus, smallpox and Marburg virus, you'll have to watch out for infected people. They all transmit from person to person. Most act like air-borne diseases but they really travel via minute fluid droplets that spray through the air when you cough or sneeze. Truly air-borne illnesses are very rare.

The easiest way to stay away from potentially ill people is to self-quarantine as much as possible. If you are outside, wear a face mask and avoid touching any exposed surfaces like doorknobs or countertops without gloves. Gloves are the best way to protect your hands from picking up germs, but you can also keep hand sanitizer around too. Alcohol-based formulas are the best and they can kill most bacteria and some viruses (definitely not all of them though). Frankly, soap and water are also highly effective but water isn't always handy (or may be in short supply).

If you are dealing with a sick individual in your home, you'll have to take serious precautions to prevent further spreading to everyone else. Masks should be worn by anyone coming into the same room as the patient. Hang a sheet in the doorway of their room to help reduce air (and water droplet) movement into the rest of the home. Any bedding, towels or bandages should be disposed of immediately while wearing gloves and a mask.

Not all epidemic disease travel from person to person, in fact many of them do not. The various animals and insects that spread the infection are known as "vectors".

Of the diseases that have the potential to become pandemic threats, there are really only a few vectors to worry about: rodents, mosquitoes, and ticks/fleas/mites. Bats and other mammals can be vectors for some disease, but it's less common. Understanding these vectors can go a long way in protecting yourself against the diseases they may carry.

Insects

Several different kind of biting insects can carry diseases.

Mosquitoes

Most people associate mosquitoes with malaria and West Nile, but these little biting nuisances also spread chikangunya, yellow fever and dengue fever. Not all mosquitoes are created equal though, and some will spread certain diseases but not others. That's why Asian or African mosquito-borne diseases don't appear in North America. Our mosquito populations are different. Of course, with changing weather patterns and overall warming temperatures, we may see more tropical mosquitoes start to colonize new regions (and bring their diseases with them).

To protect yourself against mosquito-born illnesses, you have a few options. A good-quality insect repellant containing DEET will do wonders for protecting your exposed skin, and make sure you reapply it if you have gotten wet (due to sweating or other water activities). Wear long pants and shirts with long sleeves too. If mosquitoes are really biting, a head net and gloves would complete the outfit.

Aside from your immediate body, all your windows should have screens in good repair to keep your home and living areas as bug-free as possible.

Removing any nearby sources of standing water can get rid of newly hatching mosquitoes, to help reduce the overall bug population near your home. If you have open water barrels around your home for rain collection, fit the tops with screens to keep mosquitoes from laying their eggs in the water. In the past, DDT was used in wide-spread insect control projects. It worked really well but since it's since been discovered the DDT is horribly toxic, it's not longer an option.

Another option for reducing mosquito populations around your home is the classic electric bug zapper, or one of the newer vacuum mosquito traps. These are a bit more expensive and will not be a huge impact if you have a lot of bugs to deal with. Better to cover yourself and keep the inside of your home mosquito free.

Ticks

Ticks can carry some forms of typhus as well as tularemia and Lyme disease.

When outdoors, wear long sleeved shirts and long pants to prevent ticks from latching on to your exposed skin. DEET repellent will also help quite a bit. Most ticks are on the lookout for new hosts in the tall grass, so avoid those areas if you can. You should probably even tuck your pant legs into your socks to avoid any exposed skin at all.

Checking yourself for ticks is helpful but once they've bitten you, the infection is likely already spread unless you catch them immediately. To remove a tick, use a fine-pointed pair of tweezers. Grab the bug at the head end, as close to your skin as you can and give it a steady but firm pull.

Fleas

Typhus and bubonic plague are the two main diseases that are spread by fleas.

Unlike ticks, you're aren't likely going to pick up fleas just from the open grass. They will jump on you from animals, wild or domestic. Handling dead animals is a good way to accidentally pick up some fleas unless you're protected. Gloves, long sleeves and more insect repellent should be on hand.

All of these insects can hitch a ride into your home via your pets if the animal spends time outdoors, but fleas are the ones most likely to make the jump to you. Make sure your have pets treated with appropriate products to keep the bugs off. Even pets who don't come indoors can harbor insects, and pass them on to you when you are petting them or even just brushing past them.

Ticks tend to stay on one host for a while, but fleas are much more likely to leap around which means they will easily spread from one person to another. You want to stay on top of any potential flea infestations immediately.

Lice

Generally lice aren't a vector for too many diseases, but there are forms of typhus that can be spread this way. The only way you're going to pick up lice is from another person, or from infested clothing and bedding. Check bedding frequently and make an effort to stay clean (admitted, that can be a problem during disaster scenarios when water is scarce, but do your best).

Rodents

Though we just mentioned that bubonic plague is spread by fleas, you can also get it from infected rat bites (the rat is host animal for the fleas). Lassa fever and Hanta fever both spread through mouse droppings and similar fecal contamination.

Wear gloves when handling rodents, either alive or dead. Masks and gloves are a must when handling the animals, as well as when you're cleaning up any droppings or nest materials. Keep baited traps in basements or behind furniture where mice or rats may move about at night. Poison pellets can be used liberally in similar places, though any house pets will need to be kept away from the poison. Do not allow any rodents to take up residence in your home.

Keep all food in unchewable containers (no plastic, paper or cloth bags or cardboard). If you do suspect that rats have gotten into some of your food supplies, dispose of the food entirely. Even if your local rats aren't carrying anything like plague or Lassa fever, you don't want parasites or bacteria in your food. That's just gross.

Water-Born Diseases

Now, here we're talking about diseases that typically travel in drinking water, NOT the water-droplets that were mentioned earlier in the person-to-person section. Specific threats in this scenario would be cholera and typhoid fever (a different disease from typhus).

If you are already living on a property with a private well, you are going to be fairly lucky because it is very unlikely that it will get contaminated. A UV light system would be extra protection against any bacteria or even viruses in your water supply.

Municipal water supplies are relatively secure, given the amount of chlorination and filtration that goes on. But a break-down in the mechanics could lead to improperly treated water (and there is always the chance of a deliberate biological attack). For example, the Canadian town of Walkerton had its water supply contaminated with farm waste runoff in 2000, and it sickened thousands of people with E.coli. Seven people died.

Having a supply of bottled water is the easiest way to secure your water supply if the local sources have been contaminated, but bottled water is very bulky and it would be awkward to have more than a few weeks supply on hand. It's not that hard to purify your water though, even if the supply is potentially dangerous.

Boil your drinking water for at least 4 minutes at a solid rolling boil, or use a little unscented bleach to chlorinate it. You'll need 2 drops per quart of water, give it a stir or a shake, and then let sit for half an hour before drinking. Always stored your cleaned up water in containers that are also clean, and haven't touched the suspect water. This applies to all drinking water, as well as water for cooking and personal hygiene.

You can also supplement your water supply with collected rainwater if necessary, which should be clean enough to drink as is. Filtering through coffee filter paper can help to get rid of any dust or debris, but it shouldn't require any boiling.

Weaponized Delivery

Unfortunately, we all need to be very aware (and prepared for) diseases that are delivered as an attack and not from any kind of natural sources. These are difficult to anticipate because there really isn't a lot of history with successful large-scale bio-terrorism to work with. Of course, anyone can be effected even in a very small-scale attack so you just never know where it may develop.

Not all diseases are good candidates for an attack. The sections later in this book that outline each disease will mention those are that have been studied or researched for weaponization. That can help you know which ones to be prepared for in this scenario.

A deliberate attack could come through an infected water supply, which we've just covered. It may also be possible for someone to release infected insects or rodents into a natural area to create an epidemic. Again, these vectors are already covered.

The last possible bio-attack vector would be some sort of aerosol or powdered agent, like the postal mail attacks in 2001 using powdered anthrax spores. These are the only scenes that don't mimic natural processes, and would need particular attention. Obviously, if you got mail or a package with mysterious powder it in, don't touch it. While that's sound advice, it's not too likely that your average citizen is going to be targeted this way. You want to worry about larger-scale aerosol releases.

If you are aware of such an attack (and you may not even know it's happened), you should avoid breathing any powder as much as possible. Use the fabric of your clothes to breathe through. Carrying a mask with you on a regular basis just in case of a biological attack is probably excessive, though it would help.

Get out of your clothes and wash down with soap and water as soon as you can. Do not touch your eyes, mouth or nose with your hands until you have washed yourself completely.




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