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OP Readers, as you’re well aware, most of the focus from a medical perspective regarding diseases has been centered on the Covid pandemic. “Sideshows” have also surfaced, such as monkeypox, as well as the reappearance of avian flu (in U.S. poultry flocks and in England). Serious as these are, in a post-apocalytic setting, they’ll take a back seat to diseases that can prove just as deadly under the right conditions; diseases that most of us either ignore or take for granted.
Let’s jump into it.
Here are the situations that can lead to disease increase…
Nuclear war is the most likely global catastrophe to befall us in the short term. There are other profound cataclysms that can be equal or greater in severity, such as a huge solar flare that can cook the surface of the Earth, an impact by a comet or a giant meteor, a sudden pole shift with corresponding (and immediate) temperature loss, or a pandemic with a much more lethal/virulent pathogen.
Okay. Let’s say that one of these has occurred. The breakdown in “Fisher-Price land’s” infrastructure will be immediate. The loss of power (the electrical grid and the generators themselves), the loss of potable water, the cessation of all transport of food, medicines, and vital supplies, and the immediate deaths of hundreds of millions of people will be too much. The system will collapse in under a day.
All service and support mechanisms, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, firefighting services, and police departments, will be overwhelmed, understaffed, and will end up “fizzling out” in less than a week. This will occur when the realization sets in that everything will not be coming back.
Conditions are ripe.
The survivors of the initial event must now prepare to deal with a host of different problems. In an instant, the society will have reverted to something similar to medieval Europe, and probably worse. Diseases once thought extinct or “under control” will emerge once more to become constant, prevalent in all nations.
The raw, untreated sewage in all of the urban and suburban areas will be there, as will the mountainous landfills choked with garbage. Hundreds of millions of dead – unburied – will add to this. Ruined municipal cisterns and pipe networks will create biological nightmares. Hand-in-hand with this will be the inability to obtain fresh running water to transport the sewage, as well as for drinking.
The cities will become deathtraps for those who have survived and either haven’t escaped from them or entered them in the hopes of finding refuge and supplies. We haven’t even mentioned radiation, in the case of nuclear war, or all of the different nuclear power plants that will no longer be able to cool their reactors.
A conservative estimate places several thousand bio-research labs throughout the United States, in addition to the “biggies” located at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, Plum Island in New York (now being “relocated” to Kansas), and the CDC labs in Atlanta, Georgia. Containment will go right out the window. Some of the most lethal diseases known to man are kept in these facilities.
In the ruins and in the abandoned neighborhoods and towns, the rodents and insects will begin to spread and multiply unchecked. They will become vectors, a term to describe animals or insects that harbor/carry and spread diseases. Along with the rodents will come their passengers, the fleas and ticks. Scoff, if you will, but Europe lost two-thirds of its population in the 14th century to “The Black Death,” or Bubonic Plague. The disease was never eradicated and as such, it will be the first illness we cover.
Bubonic Plague (Yersinia pestis) and its “offshoots”
This disease is caused by a bacterium. It’s transmitted by the “passengers” listed in the previous paragraph. This is the way it works. The flea contracts the disease, and it closes off its esophageal passage.
Big deal? You bet it is.
The flea’s main food supply is blood, and when it can’t swallow and take in the amount of food it needs? It bites…again and again. In a hunger-maddened frenzy to try to feed, it hops from victim to victim, spreading the bacteria as it bites its new quarries. One flea can infect many victims (people, dogs, rodents) before it succumbs.
The happy rhyme sung by children, “Ring Around the Rosie,” has much darker implications. It’s true (original) words were such.
Ring around the rosie, a pocketful of posies
Ah-tishoo! Ah-tishoo! And we all fall down!
This referred to the bubo, a pustulent, festering mass usually found under the armpit, neck, or groin (in the lymph node areas), surrounded by a red or white ring, evidencing infection by Plague. The “pocketful of posies” referred to fresh, aromatic flowers to ward it off. “Ah-tishoo” is sneezing, a late symptom of the illness just prior to the victim’s earthly departure…which is the “falling down” part.
But wait…there’s more! The plague can also be transmitted by inhaling the bacteria, in which the symptoms and afflictions are much worse…going right into the lungs…hence, becoming pneumonic plague. Death is almost certain unless it’s treated immediately after infection.
Then there’s the possibility of septicemic plague, where either by a bite or inhalation, so many bacteria go into the bloodstream that the person dies from a form of septic shock.
Symptoms are high fever, nausea, pain in the joints, vomiting, dizziness, and severe headache.
Giardia (Giardia lamblia)
Giardia poses a major problem, especially when untreated, unclean water is taken in. After a post-apocalyptic scenario, the options may be limited between dying of thirst or taking the chance of contaminated water. Boiling water for 30 minutes will do the trick.
Giardia lives in the intestines of the infected person, and one bowel movement will release millions of the organisms, a protozoan. Diarrhea is the biggest (and most severe) symptom. It’s serious because the infected person can quickly become dehydrated. Giardia can also form cysts, and this is what makes it very serious. They are resistant to chlorine (bleach).
Cysts are a robust form that the Giardia can live in when conditions are not favorable for it…and they can remain in this dormant state of near hibernation for months. The surest way to deal with them is by boiling the water, prolonged, for 30 minutes or more.
As you might have guessed, transmission here is the fecal-oral route, and this is why it will be so predominant in a post-collapse environment. With limited fresh water, survivor hygiene will be difficult, and it will be easy to transmit the Giardia if the proper sanitary precautions aren’t taken. We’ll cover those procedures shortly.
E. coli (Escherichia coli)
We’ve heard of this bacterial infection breaking out plenty of times in the news. My personal favorite was when Roger Riney (the former CEO of Yum Foods) came on TV about 15 years ago to tell everyone that Taco Bell was “safe to eat in once more,” after people ran to the emergency room after “running to the border.”
“Yum” foods, eh? All kidding aside, an E. coli infection can kill. The bacteria produce deadly proteins and toxins. Poorly-cooked ground beef is usually the culprit in the food industry because the organism thrives in cattle. Fecal-oral is also a vehicle of transmission, once again being preventable with good sanitary procedures.
More than 75,000 people per year become ill from it, with around 60 to 70 dying from it annually. Take note: this is under ideal conditions, where hospitals and medical treatment are available. It attacks the intestines and kidneys and can cause renal failure in the latter. Severe stomach cramps and diarrhea occur, and the stool is usually red. This is because hemorrhagic colitis has occurred, where the lining of the intestines is so damaged that the intestines are actively bleeding.
If the bacteria enter the rest of the body? Then the kidneys shut down because of hemolytic uremic syndrome, and high fever arises. The death rate is 15 out of 100 at this stage. Once again, that rate is under current (ideal) conditions, but in “The Day After Doomsday,” that rate will increase dramatically.
Here’s our first viral disease. The primary route of transmission is fecal-oral, especially from contaminated water, contaminated utensils, or eating fish/seafood taken from contaminated waters. Usually, the patient will carry it for anywhere from 14 to 45 days before it manifests itself. Sickness of the stomach, fever, fatigue/tiredness, yellowed eyes, and dark urine are some signs and symptoms.
These will last from 2 to 6 months. If you get through it, then you will have acquired immunity from it if you encounter it again. The biggest thing to keep in mind here is proper sanitation and the proper (complete) cooking of your food. In a world similar to the movie The Road keep in mind that a debilitated body is much more susceptible to disease, as well as being sluggish and less inclined to follow proper hygiene and sanitation.
Cholera (Vibrio cholerae)
Another bacterial infection, this one is very serious; a water-borne illness that can kill a person within 24 hours. The primary method of transmission is from drinking infected water or eating contaminated food. The disease presents with a fall in blood pressure, severe pain and cramps in the stomach and legs, and a sudden drop in body temperature that accompanies organ failure.
Within 24 hours, the patient can die without immediate medical treatment.
If the patient makes it, though, he or she can still transmit the disease for up to 15 months by shedding particles of bacteria. This disease runs rampant where municipal sanitation facilities have failed. In 1885, a severe storm with heavy rains hit Chicago. The sewers flooded and then spilled into the city’s drinking-water supply, a lake on the edge of town.
Cholera struck, and more than 80,000 people died from this outbreak.
Those are serious numbers. With cholera, supportive care measures are crucial, such as hydration. Water and salts are the “biggies” that a person will lose, due to the diarrhea, which is crippling and almost uncontrollable, with a “thin” consistency like rice-water.
(Lack of food is a huge cause of disease after a disaster. So, make sure you read our free QUICKSTART Guide to building your 3-layer food storage system.)
Rabies (Family Rhabdoviridae)
For an idea of the severity of the aggressive symptoms and the rapidity of onset, I recommend watching the classic movie Old Yeller. Mammals (both wild and domestic), including dogs, cats, raccoons, cattle, and even bats…can transmit rabies through bites or scratches. The virus moves from the point of infection (bite, scratch) into the nerves and then to the brain via the spinal cord.
Eighty percent of the patients develop severe paranoia, along with an aversion to any water (hence it was termed “hydrophobia” back in the mid-19th century, from the Greek, meaning “fear of water”). Eventually, the victim cannot breathe. The remaining 20 percent have “dumb” leprosy, which renders them sluggish/paralyzed until they pass away.
The incubation period lasts from one week, to up to six years.
An incubation period refers to the time from initial infection, to the time when the signs and symptoms of that infection begin to take effect. Keep in mind: the asymptomatic patient (showing no signs of illness, but they’re infected) can transmit the disease. A person could walk around and not know he or she is infected and still pass on that infection to someone else.
Bottom line: treatment (the Rabies vaccine) is only effective if the signs and symptoms have not started yet, so speed is of the essence.
There are around 10,000 cases or more in the U.S. annually, and few deaths, but worldwide, more than 50,000 people die from it per year. It’s a very serious disease.
Again, the flea is one of the main culprits of transmission (a vector); the flea carries the bacteria Rickettsia typhi. Culprit number two is the louse (lice), and they carry the bacteria Rickettsia prowazekii.
Severe headache and fever present themselves by those infected within 6 to 14 days after having been bitten. Within a week, rashes appear on the torso, front and back. Most people recover when these rashes disappear. Others pass out into a coma after renal (kidney) failure.
There are preventative measures to keep you safe from disease after the collapse.
Ben Franklin was spot on when he wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Your first step to preventing these not-so-serious-now diseases from taking hold of you or your family: be aware of the conditions that are favorable for them, and know about each one of them individually.
This won’t take too much effort, as the Internet will enable you to download comprehensive information on each disease. Do what I did: allocate a three-ring binder with your diseases in alphabetical order. Research the methods of transmission, as well as the treatments for them.
I’m not going to delve into treatment for them; this article is for informational purposes, to give you an insight into what we’ll all be facing if the “substance” hits the fan. For medical advice, you’ll have to talk to your State-approved, licensed, happy physician, “Dr. Doolittle,” if you can pry him off his golf course and get a straight answer out of him.
We live in a soft-socialist state, transforming into a totalitarian nation by the day. If anything, that is the reason to prepare, and not just with “supplies.” You have to study and learn, because the primary care provider just may end up being you.
The keys will be good hygiene and sanitation.
You have to uphold this for yourself and instill it into others so that they “run with the ball.” Everyone in your family/group has to make these a priority. Let’s throw these priorities into a list to follow to get the ball rolling.
- Boil all water: standing surface, flowing, or suspected water prior to drinking it, or washing with it. Boil any water you’re not 100% sure that it’s safe and clean.
- Establish a latrine/bathroom point: away from your water and food supplies, and do a controlled burn periodically (no longer than weekly).
- Personal cleanliness and handwashing: absolute musts. This will help to eliminate transmission, especially by the fecal-oral route.
- Preparation of food: Utensils must be clean and sanitized, and the food must be cooked entirely. The days of Beefsteak Tartar, and Sushi bars will be over at this point. You’ll have enough to deal with, without being bedridden or worse because of some uncooked food.
- Sanitize your common areas of living: Clean and air out your bedding, inspecting for any insects that may be vectors. Wipe down surfaces that you may be using to prepare your meals.
- Protect exposed/standing water supplies: (water drums, pools, open wells: cover these up with screening to help prevent mosquitoes from producing larvae in the water.
- “On the Move.” This means, although you’re prepared and ready with all of your supplies in your fortress in the woods, you may be forced to leave your location. No matter what the situation, you have to carry out those first six steps.
With your research, you’ll learn what antibiotics and medicines to stockpile. Another biggie: if you can’t obtain it over the counter or through regular channels, you better know where to find it. Watch the films World War Z, and Greenland, where the protagonists had kids with medical conditions. Watch the “mob” scenes at the pharmacies carefully.
You may find yourself in a similar situation, and it would be helpful to know where to obtain things in your locale. Enough said on that.
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The greatest insight comes when disastrous situations occur, and you see human nature at its roots for what it is. Yeah, we all “hope for the best,” but start preparing yourself mentally for what may be lurking just around the corner. We’ve outlined some basic diseases, and believe it or not, the best preventative measures are simple to place into operation.
When you’ve lived in the woods a long time, or been in the field on deployments, you understand the practicality (coupled with the necessity) of field hygiene and sanitation. With a collapse – in any of the forms mentioned at the beginning of this piece – you’ll have to rely on your wits and initiative to make it through after the initial occurrence. You’ll have to fight smart, not just hard, in order to defeat the pathogens.
They’re not evil. They’re organisms, trying to survive in the manner that they know how, that is instinctive to them. If you understand that going into it, then your focus can be placed on the steps you must take to defeat them, and to negate the conditions under which they thrive and multiply. These are the basics…the building blocks to lay your foundation with in your survival community, regardless of its size.
Think with your head and also with your heart. Prioritize what we’ve covered. You have to “game” it from a scenario that you may even be caught away from home…with next to nothing, except what is on your person or in your vehicle. “Game” the entire spectrum of possibilities in your mind and on paper. You can do it! Others may be depending on you, so first and foremost, have faith in yourself.
Keep in that good fight, and pray without ceasing. JJ out!
What are your thoughts?
Are there any diseases you would add to this list? Do you have any additional suggestions for preventative measures? Share your opinions in the comments.
About Jeremiah Johnson
Jeremiah Johnson is the nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Mr. Johnson is also a Gunsmith and a Master Herbalist. He graduated from the Special Forces course at SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) School, and is an expert in small unit tactics, survival, and disaster-preparedness. He lives in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana.