Simple Choices to Limit the Spread of Infectious Disease

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Simple Choices to Limit the Spread of Infectious Disease

image by: William Brawley

Ebola quarantines have been big news recently, but simply covering your mouth when you cough is part of doing your part.

"I'm only going to stay for a minute, because I'm very contagious," she said before chatting and staying for closer to five, thus knowingly exposing the nine healthy people in the room to her influenza without making any effort to minimize our risk.

Her presence was perfectly legitimate: this was a homeowners' association (HOA) meeting, and she was a resident dropping off something to the property manager. So perhaps my increasing annoyance was uncharitable. But she was fully conscious of her status as a carrier, so why wasn't she limiting our exposure, as she supposedly had in mind to do?

Staying no longer than necessary would have been one way to do that. Not going out at all when ill would have been a better choice. There will never be a more effective way for an infectious person to spare the rest of us their fate than to stay relatively quarantined while ill.

But even medical professionals are sometimes too selfish to observe such a simple courtesy. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News' chief medical editor, is the latest famous example of such breaches of etiquette—and in relation to a far more deadly disease than influenza. After returning from an assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Snyderman and her NBC News crew promised the CDC to voluntarily stay in their homes for three weeks, which is generally agreed upon as the maximum incubation period for Ebola.

But Snyderman and several of her colleagues broke their promise, this despite the fact that they worked with a cameraperson who contracted the disease. This led to New Jersey health officials forcing a mandatory quarantine on the group. Snyderman's arrogant, half-hearted apology ("As a health professional I know that we have no symptoms and pose no risk to the public, but I am deeply sorry for the concerns this episode caused") highlights how even people who know better are often unwilling to do a little extra to help minimize risk to others.

When it comes to illnesses more commonplace than Ebola, quarantining oneself is not always a realistic possibility. In such cases, wearing a simple facemask (surgical masks, "flu masks," etc.) is an example of taking that considerate extra step. Such masks can be had for as little as $5 for a 20-pack from stores like Rite Aid. Wearing flu masks is relatively commonplace in Japan. But considering how much less considerate American culture is, it's no surprise that if you see such a mask outside of the operating room on this side of the Pacific, there's probably someone of Asian extraction behind it.

Proper care with our fomites is another means to illness minimization. What's a fomite, you say? Aside from an opportunity to use a word I learned relatively recently, fomites are objects, materials, and the like likely to carry infections—clothing, silverware, and so forth.

The basic biological mechanics involved aren't too hard to understand. Empty air isn't empty: it's a multifarious hodgepodge of particles that you could actually see were your eyes a helluva lot sharper. You expel particles when you breathe—more so when you're coughing and sneezing (which is nothing compared to when what you're emitting can be seen with the naked eye (hence why blood is considered a hazardous substance))—and those particles can land on things, be carried, be ingested or inhaled elsewhere by other persons. I know: yuck. But that's the physical world of which we're a part.

During flu season you hear lots of talk about covering your mouth/nose when you cough/sneeze and washing our hands—a good practice no matter the time of year. But even this seems too much to ask of some people. I was recently sitting near someone who was coughing steadily without covering his mouth. On an airplane. During a cross-country flight. Are you kidding me?

Unfortunately, when it comes to infectious disease, more often than not the emphasis always seems to be on how we can minimize our own chances of becoming ill, with considerably less focus on how we can minimize the risk to others. That's a bit incongruous for a predominantly Judeo-Christian society, considering that, when it comes to the spread of infectious diseases, while self-reliance is paramount, each of us really is our brothers' keeper.

If you take the word of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu vaccine ("flu shot").  To some of us getting a flu shot seems excessive. Pretty much all of us have had the flu numerous times—including as children—and however unpleasant the experiences were, it's just one of those things.

But flu is no joke. While healthy adults typically get through their bouts of flu no worse for wear, the CDC says that there are years on record when nearly 50,000 people died in the U.S. from the flu. While about 90% of the deaths are persons 65+, the idea of getting a flu shot is not about simply keeping you, a healthy adult, from getting the flu, but about minimizing the spread to others, especially those for whom the flu may be far more serious.

Personally, I have never gotten a flu shot. My apparently solid immune system, along with my prejudice in favor of undergoing as few medical procedures—or even something like taking ibuprofen (on average I pop fewer than two per year) as I think I really need, has led to my balking at taking this step. (No, Jenny McCarthy, I don't think the vaccine will give me autism.)

But I think I may be wrong to resist getting a flu shot. So if you're comfortable with it—and as far as pretty much anyone can tell, there seems to be little reason not to be—do it. Because, really, the bottom line of this piece is selfish: I don't want you to make me sick. And vice versa, I'm sure.

I don't pretend these are pearls of profound, original wisdom. But considering how often I am forced to be an unfortunate witness to behavior like the flu-infected woman at my HOA meeting—or restaurant patron coughing and not covering his mouth (dude, I'm eating over here!)—apparently not everyone's gotten the memo. So CC it, and maybe we'll all be a bit better off.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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