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Dangerous Viruses of Public Health Concern and Implications for Public Health Workers

April 23 2020 - by Dr. Audrey Gittens, CLP Cohort 3 Alumna

Humans continually grapple with viruses and viral diseases. There are approximately 220 viruses with the ability to infect human beings.  The first virus was discovered in 1892 (the tobacco mosaic virus) followed by the foot-and-mouth virus of 1898.  The first virus known to have infected human beings was identified in 1901 when the virus which causes yellow fever struck.  According to Woolhouse, Scott and Chase-Topping (2012), four new species of viruses are discovered yearly, forcing Virologists and other health scientists to engage in extensive research in order to develop vaccines. 

Viruses are tiny microscopic agents which reproduce only in the cells of its host.  Whenever a virus infects a host, it forces the cells of the host to quickly reproduce thousands of copies of the original virus, therefore ensuring its own longevity. They are information systems carrying RNA and DNA and are protected by an outer shield. They are essentially squatters seeking a home in order to survive because they cannot survive without a host.  Once they enter the dwelling, they immediately begin to reproduce, making it difficult for the host to evict or eradicate.

                       Ten Dangerous Viruses of Public Health Concern

  1. Corona virus discovered in humans in 2019 has killed over 5400 and counting
  2. Ebola virus, identified in 1976 had a mortality rate of 50%-71% depending on geographic location in Africa
  3. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) discovered in the 1980s has killed more than 32 million people.
  4. Influenza B virus discovered in 1918 kills an estimated50 during annually during the flu season.
  5. Dengue was discovered in the 1950 and has a mortality rate of 20%
  6. Norovirus was first discovered in 1968
  7. Dengue virus was first discovered in 1943. The mortality rate is 2%-5% if treated and 20%   if untreated.
  8. Zika virus discovered in 1947 in monkeys and 1952 in humans
  9. Swine flu HIN1 virus killed approximately 575, 400 people around the world.
  10. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had a mortality rate of approximately 11%.


The degree of anxiety on the part of people and the damage caused by viruses are disproportionate in comparison to the size of the tiny organism.  This is due to the devastating health consequences of viruses.  The current corona virus, COVID-19 pandemic is a typical example of the concurrent hysteria and irrational fear.  The common denominator in terms of the response of the general public is panic. Each of the disease causing viruses mentioned above was believed to be the virus to obliterate the human race.  There is widespread pandemonium, with prayers ascending into heaven as people seek forgiveness from sins in order to prepare their hearts for the spiritual rapture.  There are personal pledges to better self-care, understanding the best disease-prevention strategy is for each person to take personal responsibility to live a healthy lifestyle.

The year 2019-2020 has ushered in another “new” virus, the corona/COVID-19.  It is considered new because it is the first infection  in humans.  Like previous viral diseases of pandemic proportion, the panic button has been elevated and the world is on high alert.  The source of panic is, as it always has been, the absence of accurate information.  The absence of information may be due to the fact that some sources are not credible; hence they publish a story of impending doom on a nation or, a section of the populace experience difficulties understanding information reaching them.  Within the excitement, there is a category of people who do not have the privilege of panic or the luxury of displaying fear. 

The Challenges Confronting Healthcare Providers during the Corona Public Health Crisis

abcNEWS of March 18th, 2020, under the caption “ The battle to protect health care workers on the front line of the corona pandemic”, outlined challenges faced by health care workers. As the number of infected cases increase, there is a dwindling of protective supplies such as N95 face masks. Health care workers report that they do not think that their safety matters to hospital authorities.  The World Health Organization revised its protocol and no longer recommends that health care workers wear N95 respirators unless they are engaged in procedures such as intubation when aerosols will be produced.  Instead, they should use regular safety masks. This recommendation is made at a time when the workers are constantly exposed the virus. 

The public and patients under the care of the workers are generally not concerned about the safety of the staff.  Their major concerns are that care is timely, appropriate, less costly and delivered by caring staff members.  Condition of work is not their concern and rightly so. Health care workers and bonded by their various ethical Codes of Conduct which mandate that the forefront of all professional activities must be patient safety.  They masks their personal feelings while on duty and deliver care with a smile.  The real deal though, the thoughts going through their minds as they perform their duties, is concern for their loved ones; children, spouses, siblings and parents.  The people who they will not be able to spend time with because of the risk involved in their jobs at this time.  The stress of this personal sacrifice may have overwhelmed other categories of workers but, the healthcare staff is programmed to put patient above self. Apart from direct care delivery, they have a responsibility to use the universal safety precautions to protect themselves from infection and to teach patients and others about activities to prevent and control COVID-19.  

They are definitely the unsung heroes of the universe. When COVID-19 is controlled or eradicated, there will be others and, for healthcare workers, the cycle will continue.

We would love to hear any suggestions that you have on strategies for supporting public health workers.