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Putting epidemics into perspective

By Pauline Kerr

There is no more effective way to throw fear into the hearts of the general public than to mention the word “epidemic.”
The official definition according to Merriam-Webster is simply “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time,” but the word terrifies us. It triggers images of the Black Death – carts piled high with dead bodies, motherless waifs scavenging for food, and crops rotting in the fields.
In the still-churning wake of COVID-19, any news item about a new illness, or even worse, the re-emergence of a dreaded old scourge such as polio, throws us for a major loop. We find ourselves asking if there is there a vaccine for it and if so, will that long-ago jab in an elementary school gym-turned-clinic protect us. Should we start stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and get to work stitching more masks? Will there be a lockdown?
COVID, although relatively benign compared to the Black Death, has given us an awareness of what an epidemic means – not just people dying, but a lot of people getting sick, to the point that our health-care system is overwhelmed, and every aspect of daily life is deeply impacted.
Before the development of effective vaccines against COVID, children were forbidden from playing with friends and attended school via computer. Entering a grocery store meant masking- and gloving-up, as if for a surgical procedure, maintaining that crucial six feet of separation from other customers and staff, and following the lines taped onto the aisle floors.
Weddings, funerals and family gatherings were postponed until such events were once again permitted. Elderly people in nursing homes were denied visits from beloved family members and friends. Going out to dinner meant picking up takeout and eating it in the car.
As we celebrate our first “normal” summer in a couple of years, we hear that a new wave of COVID is crashing the party.
And then there is monkeypox, a flulike illness with a rash. The World Health Organization recently declared it “a public health emergency of international concern.”
The opioid crisis is being called an epidemic. The use of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – a potent painkiller that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanil – a drug used by veterinarians for very large animals like elephants that it 10,000 times more toxic than morphine – has certainly reached epidemic proportions. Many of the street drugs used locally contain fentanyl, increasing the chance of an overdose and death.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were 29,052 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between January 2016 and December 2021.
By comparison, Canada has had (as of press time) 42,777 COVID deaths.
There is another killer that is claiming hundreds of lives across Canada each year. This particular “epidemic?” Motor vehicle collisions.
According to Transport Canada, the number of motor vehicle fatalities in 2020 was 1,745, down slightly from 2019. The approximate number of serious injuries from collisions was 7,868 in 2020.
The highest number of deaths, injuries and serious injuries was in the 25-34 age group.
Why are so many people dying on our roads? The contributing factors listed by Transport Canada are the same ones most readers would give without a moment’s thought – driving too fast, driving while distracted (think cell phones), impaired driving, and not wearing a seatbelt.
COVID made us aware that our personal decisions our health have an impact on the entire health-care system. When a high percentage of us choose to keep vaccinations up to date, there are fewer cases of COVID, and less severe cases. It means fewer cancelled surgeries for cancer and heart patients, shorter wait times at emerg, and fewer health-care professionals burning out from overwork.
Our decisions when we get behind the wheel deeply affect others. Slowing down and driving safely will result not only in fewer deaths on our roads, but less stress on our emergency responders and health-care system. And it does not even take a jab in the arm.

 

 

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