Coursera: Epidemiology

This past fall the Galileo School took an online course at coursera.org, a wonderful website where colleges can give online lectures on whatever subject they want. We decided to take a course on epidemiology from Penn. State. The course introduces you to the world of epidemics, where we learned about disease and human behaviors during an epidemic. We had the privilege of being taught by professors at the head of their field, and we took a look at some epidemics of the past that taught us a lot about what we could expect in the future.

Epidemic > noun< / ep·i·dem·ic / affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately  large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time; in this case we are speaking of a disease .

What takes place during an epidemic? Since I could find no better way to express what I have learned I am going to create a fake epidemic and take you through the steps:

1. Outbreak: Say you are in New York City, you come home from work and you see a nightly news scare about a boy who had just arrived home from Zimbabwe and died of a mysterious virus of some sort at 1:30 a.m yesterday morning. You think nothing of it and go to bed. Next week four people have died, three people are hospitalized that all lived in the same apartment complex as the first boy who died . Let’s switch identities. You are now a person working for the CDC, you are scrambling to get your expert medical personnel on the case. By the next week over a dozen people are dead and twenty or so are sick, you now have an outbreak on your hands.

2.Panic: One month has passed and there have been fifty-seven deaths and over one hundred people are sick. You have talked to many experts and all they know is that they think it’s is an infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract because patients are coughing up blood. In Zimbabwe, people are saying that the spirits have poisoned the water that he drank and the food that he ate. Nobody believes that. Let’s switch identities. You are a nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital, treating patients of this unknown epidemic. Some parts of the Bronx where the first cases appeared have been evacuated. Personally, you find it hard to believe that New York Presbyterian is the only hospital accepting these infectious patients, when it is so dangerous to transport the sick from the Bronx all the way down to lower Manhattan. the cycle of the disease is slower than one would imagine, considering how infectious it is. First there are headaches and coughing, then vomiting and yellowing of the eyes, then there is blood seeping from every opening in the body, finally the kidneys fail and soon followed by the liver. Death comes in about a week after you start showing systems. There is utter chaos throughout the city, and it seems that all hell could break lose any moment.

3.Vaccine: Let’s switch identities. You are at the CDC again. It has been two months since the outbreak and three-hundred people have died and 450 are in the hospital. Your only priority is to get a vaccine out as soon as possible. Scientists have gotten samples of the disease DNA. Someone has explained to you that this ‘pathogen’ has crossed over from animal to human. Only God knows how that happened, but the vaccine is still weeks or months away from even being tested. All you can do is wait for this cure while you watch all havoc break loose.

4. Aftermath: It is now a year later and the epidemic has been completely halted. In the end 1563 people died. A vaccine was never produced. You see, eventually all of the Bronx was evacuated and amazingly it just stopped. This is what happened: A bird in Zimbabwe is eating a fruit, it gets startled by a monkey, drops the fruit and flys away. The monkey continues to eat the fruit, then afterward urinates in a stream. The urine gets isolated in the bogs of puddles on the side of the stream. The boy, who is hiking through the jungle, and decides to fill his water bottle with the water from the puddle that looks clean but really isn’t. He flys back home to his apartment in the Bronx with a headache, and later vomits in his toilet. The vomit sits in the sewage pipe that is backed up.  The next day it is 95 degrees outside and people are turning one their fans in their bathroom. The microscopic chunks of the vomit get blown throughout the building and are breathed in by multiple people. It infects their lungs and is lining their digestive tract. These four people infect their neighbors by coughing on them, and so the epidemic begins. Months later once everyone one is evacuated and quarantined, the disease has no one to spread to, and the remaining carriers die out.

Thank you for reading my story, I hope you grasped to what I was conveying to you, which is that what I learned was not just facts, but how an epidemic can start, how it can live and how it can end.

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