Disease comes in many forms. It is not only bacteria and viruses that cause disease. Cancer, as we all know is a prolific killer in today’s world and autoimmune diseases, where our own body turns on itself, are causing massive numbers of human beings to suffer both life threatening and chronic illness.
Before we look at the types of diseases that will mar our existence, once the SHTF it’s good to have a little knowledge about the history of disease and why some modern diseases exist. From that knowledge we can understand what will and what won’t be a problem.
It’s an unusual person who hasn’t had at least one of the well known childhood disease, like measles, German measles or Whooping cough – growing up in the late 60s and 70s, I’ve, unfortunately, had all three. But these sorts of diseases are called ‘communicable diseases’. Communicable diseases are so called because they require a sizeable population to emerge and be transmitted; the disease being passed from person to person, effectively keeping the condition ‘alive’. Population density and urbanization are responsible for many of the modern diseases. We currently have a global population of over 7 billion and counting – many of those living in urban, cramped areas. Larger and denser populations allow pathogens to be transmitted between hosts more easily as they are in closer contact. More dense populations often go hand in hand with poor sanitation and poverty, both of which help disease to take control. According to the World Health Organization, in 2004, one fifth of global deaths were due to infectious diseases. If you look at developing countries the rate of death due to infectious disease is 14X that of developed countries – this is down to very high-density populations in cities, poor diet, lack of sanitation and poor medical facilities. Click here to find the #1 killer during Katrina (Video)
If we look at some of the recent infectious disease epidemics, like the Ebola outbreak of 2014, it started with a single child being bitten by a bat with the virus. It then spread more quickly than earlier outbreaks of the virus because of the density of the population in the West African cities and towns it impacted.
Other diseases that are carried in animal vectors, like the mosquito, which carries, West Nile Virus, Zika virus and Malaria, are also seeing an increase because of climate change – mosquitos being able to live in areas they previously couldn’t. Diseases like Zika are also being transmitted because of international travel.
The above examples of when an animal transmits a disease into the human population are known as a zoonosis and we’ll come back to those later.
Diet has also played a major part in the emergence of modern diseases. Many of the biggest killers, like heart disease, stroke, many cancers and autoimmune conditions like type 2 diabetes, have origins in western diets. Many ‘allergic’ diseases like asthma are linked to both dietary and environmental causes.
Disease and Illness After the SHTF
Many of the modern diseases we suffer from are down to urbanization, population expansion and density, poor sanitation in large crowded cities, climate change, western diets and greater travel. Many of these things will go away when the SHTF. It’s likely that certain obesity related cancers and type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease will decrease massively, if not be eradicated, with a global catastrophe that radically changes our lifestyle.
Certainly the population will be much smaller and in the first years after will be unlikely to congregate in any kind of density. Similarly, travel will be restricted. But other issues will remain. Climate change is unlikely to suddenly stop. Sanitation will be a real issue, especially that of water. And diet may well be restricted so many of the western diseases like type 2 diabetes may not exist at all.
So what do we have to worry about after that, will the world be a disease free utopia? I’m afraid it won’t and the following types of diseases are the ones we should be concerned with:
Diet based diseases
When the SHTF the chances are you will not have as varied a diet as you have today. Food will not only be scarce, but it is likely you will have to eat the same stuff day after day. When the SHTF we will have to use a more subsistence based diet where food is very dependent on season and climate. We may grow some crops, like maize, as the early Native Americans did but we won’t have the wide variety of foodstuffs we known today. This is both good, in terms of reducing obesity and cavities, but bad in that we may end up malnourished.
Archeological research into ancient cultures of Native Americans, who lived a diet with less varied foodstuffs, has found evidence for a number of diet-based diseases. One of the most prevalent diseases of these peoples is anemia. This was due to over reliance on one foodstuff for many months of the year – in this case maize. It will be important when you find yourself in this situation to try to find iron rich foods to prevent anemia. Other diet related deficiencies include iodine deficiency, which impacts the thyroid, calcium, causing bone problems and B vitamins, which cause neurological issues.
Some infectious diseases can proliferate in smaller populations. Normally (as we mentioned previously) infection needs to have a large pool of uninfected individuals that it can be passed onto to allow the infection to spread. Otherwise, held in the same individual, or in very small populations, it ‘dies out’ due to the infected people themselves dying before it is passed on, or because an immunity is developed. Therefore for an infection to continue in small populations it has to be of a certain type. The infection in this case needs to have long latency (i.e. it can exist without impacting the hosts immune system) and low virulence.
Some examples of infections that fit this profile and that may be around in SHTF conditions are the Herpes simplex and chickenpox viruses. These are viruses that are able to live in a host for many years without showing any signs of infection, i.e. not awakening the immune system. The disease then ‘wakes up’ and infects another individual.
Parasites are something humankind has lived with for millennia. Nemotode worms and flatworms have been found in almost all animal species. It’s believed that pinworm or threadworm has been a parasite of human beings since we came down from the trees. Certainly our ancient ancestors would’ve suffered from it and when the SHTF there is no reason to think things will change.
Diseases that originate in the animals we live amongst and those in our environment can sometimes transfer over to humans. Animals can act as ‘vectors’ to transmit disease, like mosquitos, or a diseased animal can transmit their disease directly to a human, like rabies.
Diseases like Ebola, rabies, malaria, West Nile virus and Lyme’s disease will still be an issue after the SHTF. They may not become an epidemic as there aren’t enough people around to cause one, but on an individual level they will still be a problem.
Food borne disease
Diseases such as botulism, e-coli and salmonella are diseases that may well become an issue when the SHTF. Botulism, for example is found in soil and can be fatal if ingested. Modern preservation techniques kill this bacterium, but you wont have access to those so the incidence of it occurring increases. Home canning needs to be done very carefully as this can allow the bacteria to replicate if not done correctly.
E-coli lives in the intestines of a number of domestic animals, like cattle. The animals aren’t affected by the bacterium, but act like a reservoir. If we start to use domestic animals after the SHTF then this is another disease that will rear its head.
Water Borne Disease
Water is a great medium for disease. There are many diseases that can be caught from water, even water that looks clean. This won’t change when the SHTF. It may even become more acute as treated water won’t be available and we may resort to drinking from streams and rivers. The types of diseases to wath out for are:
Cryptosporidium, which is a parasite and causes severe stomach cramps, dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea.
Legionella, found in contaminated water and causing pneumonia, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and muscle aches. If you store water you need to read this.
Weils disease cased by animals such as rats, dogs and pigs urinating in water. It causes flu like symptoms but can also cause organ failure.
Cholera is less likely to be an issue once the SHTF as it is caused by contaminated fecal matter in water and so tends to proliferate in heavily populated areas.
Genetic diseases and ‘founder effect’
In evolutionary science there is a phenomenon called ‘Founder Effect’. This is where genetic diseases are passed down to the descendants that originate from a small population (the founding population, aka a small gene pool). A modern day example of this is seen in the Old Order Amish community of Pennsylvania. A few dozen people started the order in the early 1700’s. Today the order has a very high rate of a genetic condition called ‘microcephaly‘.
As you can see, we may get rid of some of today’s biggest killers, such as those associated with obesity, and those that need a large population to take hold. However, we will open up new reservoirs of disease because of poor diet, lack of sanitation and a smaller gene pool.
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