Utah’s next big pandemic and you

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Bacteria is quickly weaving its way through the bloodstream, it will not stop until it reaches the lungs. Violent coughing ensues. Chest pain momentarily distracts from the coughing. Looking down, a skin ulcer is visible, until vision blurs and the mirror shows an inflamed boulder where the clear, green eye once rested. The size of the eye quickly becomes less alarming as the knot under the arm has grown, demanding recognition.

Do not overreact. Do not under-react. The cause of these symptoms is unknown; unless contact with animals, the outdoors or breathing has recently occurred.

These are all symptoms of Tularemia, one of several zoonotic diseases, which is an animal-borne disease, but has begun to appear in greater frequency in humans.

Tularemia is of particular concern to the Utah Department of Health. Others on watch in Utah are hantavirus and rabies, which is described as “invariably fatal.”

Melissa Stevens Dimond is the program manager of Utah’s Communicable Disease Investigation and Response Program. Dimond, along with other members of her staff gathered together to answer questions about zoonotic diseases in Utah.

Diseases of concern can be more common than the example of Tularemia.

“Influenza is an example of a disease with potential to ‘spillover’, and a history of doing so; influenza affects humans, birds, and pigs,” Dimond said. “Normally, there are different strains that circulate in each of these three species. But when a strain from one species, for example pigs, starts to circulate in a different species, for example humans, it poses a problem. This occurred in 2009 with the H1N1 influenza pandemic.”

Other zoonotic diseases have affected Utah in the recent past have gone unnoticed because they did not affect enough people.

“Typically, human cases of zoonotic diseases occur rarely and sporadically,” Dimond said. “In these instances, when there is no significant risk for the public, information in not released broadly.

David Quammen is an author of several books and a series for National Geographic and recently released his newest book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.”

Quammen considers his book a combination of scientific exploration and field work that took place all over the world.

While researching for the book Quammen came upon one of his most interesting discoveries.

“One that stands out in particular is the real origins of the AIDS pandemic, ” he said. “What I found out has been very different from what people think they know. One chimp with the disease passed it on to one human in central Africa as far back as 1908, which is very different from what people think they know.”

Just as easily as we get sick from animals, animals can get sick from us. Quammen cited an example of a rare breed of gorillas in Rwanda.

“People who come to see the gorillas are not allowed to get too close,” he said. “Diseases like measles and  tuberculosis can travel from us, to them.”

Both Dimond and Quammen discussed ways to stay healthy during a pandemic or to help prevent a larger outbreak.

“It is important to be aware even with domesticated animals,” Quammen said. “Have your animals vaccinated and be aware in the way you handle them and take care of them, do not become too familiar with them.”

“An important and interesting point is that for many diseases, including influenza of any type, basic hygiene measures are critical in keeping people healthy, for example, frequent hand washing and staying home while sick,” Dimond said.

While Quammen’s book could inspire great concern for future pandemics, he and Dimond do not recommend speculation towards the subject.

“No one knows what the next great pandemic will be,” Dimond said. “Historical evidence leads us to plan for an influenza pandemic, since they have occurred with some regularity over time.”

Information regarding case counts and incidence for all reportable conditions in Utah, including zoonoses, is made available regularly on the Bureau of Epidemiology’s website at: http://health.utah.gov/epi/morbidity_report/index.htm.

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