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Pandemic

Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond

By Sonia Shah
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Pandemic by Sonia Shah
Synopsis

Pandemic (2016) explores the fascinating world of pathogens and diseases and how they can spread from a bat in China to five other continents in a single day. How do these diseases evolve, and how does modern society help contribute to their success? And most importantly: what can we do to stop the next pandemic?

Key idea 1 of 8

As humans spread across the globe, previously harmless animal pathogens adapted to our bodies and made us sick.

Have you ever stopped to wonder, is there a place on Earth humans haven’t inhabited? Over the past few centuries we’ve expanded to almost every region on this planet. You can even find us in inhospitable places like the wetlands and Antarctica.

Well, sometimes this grand expansion comes with serious consequences.

Take, for example, the Sundarbans, a large mangrove forest in Bangladesh and India that was left uninhabited by Mughal emperors who saw it as a dangerous and evil land. In a way, this turned out to be true, since at the time the area was swarming with cholera germs carried by tiny flea-like creatures called copepods.

But around 1760, the East India Company took over the area, cutting down the forest to cultivate rice. By the end of the nineteenth century, humans occupied 90 percent of the Sundarbans and were unwittingly working and bathing in water full of cholera-bearing copepods.

This massive and continuous exposure enabled the cholera bacteria to adapt to human bodies and make us their new host. Over time, the bacteria developed small “tails,” allowing it to bond together, build a sticky film and colonize in our gut.

We saw this happen again in 2003, with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, when a bat virus learned to adapt to humans in a “wet market” in Guangzhou, China.

The vendors in these markets sell a wide variety of live animals, such as turtles, snakes and bats. The virus that would eventually cause SARS started out as a horseshoe bat virus, one that usually can’t harm humans and most animals.

But since this market had so many wild animals penned up in such a small space, the virus got the continuous exposure it needed to adapt itself to other animals, and eventually to people.

So we know how an outbreak starts. In the next blink, we’ll see how this initial contact can lead to a global epidemic.

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