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Epidemics and Modern Society
If our understanding and technology are so good, why do some diseases continue to pop up?
Though it has a long history dating back to Hippocrates, the Western idea of epidemics and the study of epidemiology could be said to have direct roots to a water pump in London, England, 1854. Before then, disease was thought to be caused by a toxic “miasma” that surrounded human waste.
When a Cholera outbreak struck the area around Broad Street, a physician named John Snow was determined to discover the cause. By the end of the outbreak, medical knowledge entered new territory: We began to understand how contaminated water spreads disease.
Modern Public Health and the Modern Epidemic
Today epidemiology is a vital study for protecting public health. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and others study data and implement solutions that address health concerns across entire populations.
We have much better technology than we did in the 1800s, and we understand how diseases work at a microscopic level as well as the population level. Yet preventable diseases, even ones that had previously been thought to be eradicated, sometimes pop up. When this happens, increased population density, global travel, low access to care, and a number of other factors can make outbreaks just as dangerous as they were when we thought they were caused by foul vapors.
Why Do We Still Have Outbreaks?
If our understanding and technology are so good, why do some diseases continue to pop up? The answer is simple, in that the entire world, unfortunately, doesn’t have access to the same resources. Due to the global nature of our economy, especially, it’s very easy for outbreaks to pass between countries, affecting people that might not have been vulnerable otherwise — or worse, moving to areas that are less well outfitted to handle the medical requirements.
Ebola is an example of a recurring disease that affects impoverished communities much more heavily than wealthier ones. A virus can begin in a community that is relatively small and, through commerce and travel, spread outward to become much more difficult to manage. In addition, having the technology to create a vaccine isn’t enough. Vaccines need time and resources to create, then they have to be distributed. Even in wealthy countries, this can take a long time.
Environmental disasters are often accompanied by outbreaks. Once an area’s infrastructure has been damaged, if people can’t access clean water or food, that location becomes much more likely to develop outbreaks of a nasty virus, exacerbating the issues caused by the disaster in the first place.
An Interconnected World: Interconnected Solutions
The prevalence of trade and global businesses have transformed epidemiology into a global issue. Even if a virus doesn’t transfer between countries, there are many reasons that preventing disasters is advantageous to the entire international community. Specifically, we are often concerned about the humanitarian implications of dangerous outbreaks, and there are less altruistic reasons to care as well.
Governments often send aid to countries they have trade relationships with because a decimated population of one country has the potential to negatively impact global markets. Healthy populations are good for everyone, which is the reason for organizations such as the World Health Organization.
Even societies with modern technology aren’t immune from public health concerns, as political influence often enters the realm of science and health. Anti-vaccination movements appear to have been contributing to the resurgence of diseases that we thought we had gotten rid of — such as measles.
It seems that epidemiology will always be a necessary field of study in both developed and developing countries. It requires an effort to understand population statistics, efforts from governments to invest in public works and healthcare, and on an individual level, for people to make use of the technology available to them to keep themselves and the people around them healthy. See Covid - 19 news updates here
© Indiana Lee March 9th 2020
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