Nobody knows for sure where mass-killing viruses originate. They appear suddenly around the world without warnings.
Theories from scientists and historians can vary greatly. The Spanish Flu, for example, which killed around 30 million people in 1919, has been attributed to Chinese laborers, French birds and pigs from Kansas.
Regardless of its origin, it was spread easily and rapidly by World War I troops traveling all over the world. Early reports of the illness in late 1917 from the front lines in France and Germany were suppressed by the Axis and Allies to the extent that only neutral Spain allowed news coverage of this new disease, hence the nickname, the Spanish Flu. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.
WHERE DOES A PANDEMIC START?
Deadly viruses are unpredictable, sometimes lying dormant for months or years without causing illness. Or they unexpectedly mutate—change form—into a new, unfamiliar version that scientists haven’t seen, meaning there’s no vaccine.
Maybe the new version transmits in a new way, such as through the air instead of only through bodily fluids, causing extra concern for alarm. Or the virus doesn’t respond to medication. Diseases sometimes prey on the immune systems of perfectly healthy people—the prime gene pool—instead of the sick, the young or the elderly.
Consider the swine flu, first detected in the U.S. in April 2009 in a 10-year-old patient in California. Thought to have originated in Veracruz, Mexico (and contained there), the strain of this virus had never before been detected in humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a one-year time span, the pandemic caused approximately 60.8 million infections, 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S. alone.
The United States has been the host of more than a few acts of bioterrorism, starting in the 1700s with blankets given to Native Americans that were infected with smallpox. During the Rajneeshee bioterrorism act of 1984, salad bars in 10 restaurants in Oregon were contaminated with salmonella by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, sickening 751 people and hospitalizing 46.
The CDC, in conjunction with the U.S. military, spends an inordinate amount of time discussing potential bioterrorism plots and scenarios. Because of their ability for widespread illness and death, they have labeled the most threatening viruses and bacteria as Category A agents. They include: smallpox, anthrax, plague, botulism, tularemia, VHF (viral hemorrhagic fevers), VE (viral encephalitis), Q fever, brucellosis, glanders, melioidosis, psittacosis, ricin toxin, typhus, cholera and shigellosis.
The first six listed are the most likely to be used by terrorists and pose the greatest potential public health impact with mass casualties, according to the CDC.
The best practice to prevent spreading any number of diseases, viruses and bacteria that can get you seriously ill is to practice good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle.
With its mass transit, high-rise office buildings with enclosed ventilation systems and masses of people living tightly packed in urban areas, today’s world makes it difficult to remain germ-free. But experts have a few recommendations to help reduce your chance of contracting an infection.
Think of hand washing as a survival skill (which is why you should always keep a bar of soap in your B.O.B. or emergency kit). Keep you hands and face clean by washing them frequently and be conscious of the things you touch. Never touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands).
Keep covered any cuts and/or scrapes, and avoid touching other people who have injuries. Don’t share personal items like makeup, towels, razors, or toothbrushes and combs. Don’t share food. Take a shower after swimming, especially if you have been swimming in a lake, river or ocean.
According to the CDC, “Staphylococcus is shed by individuals into the waters and if you do go into these waters you are likely to be exposed.” It is important to keep your immune system as health as possible. To do so means you’ll need to get plenty of exercise and eat well-balanced meals. Get plenty of rest/sleep and don’t subject yourself to big temperature swings.
Keeping your environment clean is almost as important as keeping yourself clean. Wash and dry all clothing and bedsheets regularly with hot water. Wipe down frequently touched surfaces like tables and counters with a disinfectant, and always prepare food on a clean surface.
A bioterrorism attack might not be immediately noticed until long after hospitals begin to fill up with the infected. However, there are some steps you can take to avoid infection, especially if the attack (or contagion) is in its early stages.
In your kit, you should assemble items specifically geared toward chemical and biological toxins. Include things such as particulate masks to filter out any airborne germs, latex gloves, plastic sheets and duct tape to seal windows air vents and doors, and plenty of chemical cleaning agents (bleach, anti-bacterial soap and disposable wipes). Consider a gas mask that completely covers the face (mouth, nose, and eyes). Monitor the radio airwaves.
If the pandemic is prolonged, it’s a good idea to plan for complete societal breakdown. Sick people aren’t going to be at work, and those who aren’t sick will be frightened to risk exposing themselves, so they will stay away as well. If you are well prepared, your family will be able to live comfortably at home without having to expose yourselves to other people for long periods of time.
• Ideally, choose to live in a less populated or rural area
• Install alternative power sources in your home, such as solar panels and shingles
• Store several battery-operated lanterns
• Consider having a propane heater (and tank) on site
• Store a radio with extra batteries in order to listen to news updates
STAY OR GO?
If you are stuck in a building and a bioterrorism event is taking place, evacuate as quickly as possible. An efficient HVAC system of an office building will disperse the virus/bacteria quickly. If evacuation isn’t possible and there’s no obvious safe place to go, find some plastic and duct tape and seal off the air vents, windows and door frames.
If you can’t escape the building, sequester yourself into a closet, as they won’t likely have air vents, and although you are effectively trapped, at least you aren’t exposed to the agent. If it is an isolated attack, it will dissipate in a few hours. Until then, start sealing the door frame. In the event of a contagious outbreak, being isolated from other people is the best policy. Seal your house from any outside air and take stock of your supplies. Dangers from the Spanish Flu in 1919 lasted for nearly a year in some areas.
If you believe you have been exposed to a biological agent, you should first isolate yourself so as not to spread the disease. Remove your clothing and bathe with an antibacterial soap. Before seeking medical attention, call your doctor and get instructions. Don’t immediately go to the doctor’s office or hospital, for your own safety as well as that of others.
IS THE THREAT REAL?
Superbugs are real. So is the threat of bioterrorism. Dealing with biological agents, whether they are natural occurrences, freaks of nature, or introduced by people seeking to do harm is a difficult task. If you want to survive the coming epidemic you should make sure your preparations are thorough and complete.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 issue of American Survival Guide.