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When It Comes to the Tiniest Killers, Defense Is the Best Offense

February 12, 2018, 4:15 PM UTC

What do an Olympic outbreak of norovirus in Pyeongchang, a death from Lassa fever in Guinea, and a severe eruption of flu in the United States have in common? Each—in addition to happening right now (or very recently)—is a reminder of how frail the human organism can be compared with the microorganisms that compete with us for earthly dominance.

Laurie Garrett, one of the globe’s most gifted writers on global public health issues, has a timely and scary essay on about the nasty norovirus plaguing athletes in the Olympic village—a bug one expert calls the “perfect human pathogen.” Though the virus rarely kills people, it is “so contagious and causes such violent illness to further spread its progeny that is virtually impossible to eliminate…from a crowded human environment,” writes Garrett. Remarkably sticky on surfaces, brilliant at hitchhiking rides on everything from shoes to door handles, and infectious at even sparse concentrations of viral particles, noroviruses are truly Gold-medal favorites in the Germ Olympics.

The recent Lassa fever death in Guinea—the first in more than two decades, as the Washington Post notes—is worrisome for a number of reasons, but one of those is where the Guinean victim died: next door in Liberia. The cross-border fatality conjures up bad memories of another hemorrhagic fever, Ebola, which freely crossed borders in the horrific 2014 West African outbreak. (Also raising concern is how long it apparently took health officials to publicly report the death. The infected person died nearly a month ago, on Jan. 11.)

And the flu? Its power to sicken and kill is made clear year after year after year—and still we seem surprised by its morbid rage…year after year after year.

These little invisible beasts—whether they be RNA-based noroviruses, arenaviruses like Lassa, or influenza viruses—evolve as we do…only much, much faster. And many of them are world travelers to boot, collecting frequent flier miles as if they were globetrotting CEOs.

For those curious and intrepid, the NIH has a handy manifest of Emerging Infectious Diseases, or EIDs, which it breaks down into three categories, based on the priority of the threat.

The scariest of these EIDs, from a population health standpoint, aren’t the ones that kill the most, but rather the ones that get lots of people pretty darn sick. The pathogens on this list also disseminate with moderate ease and, say health officials, “require specific enhancements for diagnostic capacity” in order to identify them rapidly—a level of readiness we simply don’t have for many new infectious diseases.

Why do I bring this up on a beautiful Monday morning? To remind us that we—and I speak here of both the American “we” and the global “we”—don’t yet have a good defensive plan to deal with these threats. The nightly news reports about the brutal seasonal flu, now widespread across our great land, haven’t jumpstarted efforts to build (and fund) such a plan.

And if that hasn’t done it—and if Zika and Ebola and SARS didn’t do it before that—I don’t want to imagine what will.

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.