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Into the Heart of the Outbreak (Guardians Against a Global Pandemic Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 17, 2013

May 2, 2013: Flight 801  Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to New York's JFK. Aboard: 368 souls and a virus that, over the next 10 years, will kill 20 million people. Are you prepared?

May 2, 2013: Flight 801 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to New York’s JFK.
Aboard: 368 souls and a virus that, over the next 10 years, will kill 20 million people. Are you prepared?

This is a story I wrote for the May issue of Men’s Health magazine:


Last September, a 49-year-old Qatari man who’d recently traveled to Saudi Arabia was hospitalized in Doha with a nasty respiratory illness. He deteriorated rapidly, and doctors promptly airlifted him to a London hospital, where he wound up on life support with kidney and lung failure. From respiratory tract samples, investigators soon teased out an unknown coronavirus.  It turned out to be the same virus that had just killed an otherwise healthy 60-year-old in Saudi Arabia.

For one tense moment, epidemiologists thought they might be witnessing a replay of the devastating 2003 SARS epidemic, also brought on by a coronavirus. But the threat this time looked worse: Three million people were about to descend on Saudi Arabia for the hajj, a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca already well known for the overnight global redistribution of illnesses via passenger jet.

Disease detectives of all specialties caught the next available flights into the heart of the potential outbreak. Epidemiologists tracked down anyone who had been even remotely associated with the victims. Veterinarians wearing protective gear went to a farm that one of the victims had visited and took samples from hundreds of domestic and wild animals to identify the species from which the virus had jumped to humans. This effort, unseen by the public but involving hundreds of experts around the world, soon established that the disease did not, in fact, spread easily from one person to another. The hajj wasn’t a hot zone after all.

It was a lucky break. As of early March, the new virus had sickened only 14 people and killed eight. But the episode was also a reminder that the supply of emerging diseases in the modern world is almost eye-bleedingly endless, and that they can turn up anywhere. One such pathogen, West Nile virus, killed 243 people in the United States last year. And a Denver hospital last summer experienced an alarming outbreak of a notorious New Delhi “superbug,” a bacteria with broad resistance to almost all antibiotics. Health officials will tell you that the Big One, a disease outbreak on the order of the influenza pandemic of 1918, could happen any day—and that sooner or later it almost certainly will.

They’ll also tell you that men in particular need to pay attention to the potential hazards: We travel more than women, particularly for business. Our trips tend to take us to more-remote destinations. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we also have a much higher incidence of malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis, and Legionnaires’ disease (which last year killed 13 people in Quebec City, and three at a downtown Chicago Marriott hotel)—and perhaps other diseases yet unknown.

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