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The CDC, Anthrax and the Apocalypse: What Sci-Fi Gets Right

The popularity of TV shows such as The Strain underscores Americans’ long fascination with pandemic apocalypse dramas, but in light of recent CDC mishaps with viruses such as Anthrax, they may be wondering how far sci-fi hits are from the truth.

The CDC’s publicly acknowledged safety problems regarding epidemic disease agents are many, challenging the best  schlock-horror scenarios in terms of improbability.

Pandemics and Plastic Baggies: A Horror Show

New information gleaned from an investigation by the USDA in preparation for this week’s congressional hearing reveals how infectious bacteria has been stored in unlocked refrigerators in CDC common areas and potentially hazardous “select agent materials” or bacteria and viral agents were stored in Ziploc bags for transport.

TV shows in the medical horror genre tend to show those infected dying swiftly in a spectacular show of gore and suffering. The kind of rapid-growth, bacteria and viruses which start pandemics, however, can actually take up to 21 days to even manifest as symptoms, some of which-such as those of the “flesh-eating” Ebola virus-are indistinguishable from that of a common flu.

Deadly and Undetectable: TV-Worthy Pandemic Viruses

The fact that pandemic viruses are exceptionally hard to identify in their early stages means that sufferers may be treated alongside victims of less-dangerous diseases, potentially causing cross-contamination.

When matured,  pandemic diseases cause a variety of symptoms ranging from fever and vomiting to- in the case of Ebola- vigorous hemorrhaging from body orifices and arteries, causing the victim to appear to “dissolve” in pools of their own blood.

Airborne Disease:  Bugs and Big Jets

Another key element in pandemics spreading is international travel, writes the European Center for Disease Control, with airports being one way that viruses such as the airborne (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) SARS manage to reach multiple continents quickly.

Casual contact on planes or in airport waiting areas are a means of transmission which are virtually impossible to curtail. That means outbreaks even in rural areas of Africa and Asia can impact those in industrialized nations.

Even infected migratory birds, when bitten by mosquitos caused outbreaks in 2012 of a stronger  neurovirulent or neurosystem-impacting form of the West Nile Virus in Serbia, Germany, Italy and Greece as the infected insects bit humans.

Hospital Horrors: The Sad and the Scary

While airports are notorious for their friendliness to spreading contagion, hospitals, when overwhelmed with patients or undersupplied with hygiene products, are also breeding grounds for new epidemics such as SARS. SARS was reportedly brought to Hong Kong by a doctor whom had been in contact with victims in rural China. Many volunteer workers in Africa traveling between hard-hit epidemic areas and their homes have died,  infecting others while in transit.

Doctors in popular sci-fi TV shows usually manage to contain pandemic outbreaks at least briefly, but many hospitals in major cities are currently ill-prepared to handle a potentially large influx of victims, according to researchers from the FDA and CDC.

The CDC : A Starring Role Nobody Wants

Recently, the CDC admitted to the possible exposure of as many as 84 workers  to Anthrax. By its own admission, the CDC has experienced multiple difficulties in storing, transferring and managing deadly pathogens for at least eight years.

The CDC’s time in the spotlight became even less comfortable when a second press release stated the following:

“A culture of non-pathogenic avian influenza was unintentionally cross-contaminated at the CDC influenza laboratory with the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of influenza and shipped to a BSL-3 select-agent laboratory operated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Although the press release stated that the CDC would begin to tighten controls on research and transport of pathogens, the agency did not mention implementing any new or increased policing powers over third-party pathogen handlers.

Why it Matters:

A highly dangerous strain of a virus was improperly mixed with a viral strain labeled as relatively benign and shipped to an unnamed USDA testing facility- potential putting workers and those in contact with them at risk. USDA testing facilities that handle BSL-3 are located in urban areas on campuses such as Yale University.

The CDC, in its latest report also detailed 5 incidents since 2004 in which the agency mishandled, lost or released by mistake pathogens ranging from small pox to H5N1 bird flu.

What it All Means:

While the nightmarish scenarios of sci-fi medical thrillers are unlikely to occur in real life- despite the CDC’s satirical take on the prospect in a comic book– the issues brought up are significant. CDC mishaps and the lack of disaster preparedness in many major cities are dangerous conditions, according to many researchers, which ought to be addressed as a priority.

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Carla Rover