From a medical perspective, plague refers to a specific disease caused by a bacterium and carried by rats. The plague (also called the Black Death) of the mid 14th century is said to have wiped out between 30% and 60% of the population of Europe.
Of course other significant epidemics of infection have occurred since then. It’s estimated that the flu pandemic of 1918 killed 75 million people worldwide. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) first identified in Hong Kong in 2002 and spread to 37 countries within a few weeks. And, more recently this century, the influenza variations of Swine Flu and Avian Flu have raised concerns of uncontrolled infection; whilst in the last couple of years there have been major outbreaks of mumps, meningitis, measles, cholera and dengue fever.
The “germ theory” of disease was promoted vigorously by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur in the 1860s. Then, the discovery a short time later by German physician Robert Koch of the organisms which cause anthrax, tuberculosis and cholera, and the pioneering of antiseptic surgery by Scotsman Joseph Lister all increased our pool of knowledge relating to infectious diseases and the likelihood that such diseases could be effectively treated and prevented.
Antibiotics were not freely available till well after World War II; and we now tend to take the use of antibiotics very much for granted, but they are not effective against all infections; and overuse or inappropriate use will make them even less effective. At least equally important in combating infectious disease have been improved sanitation and hygiene and the introduction of immunisation programs.
The spread of infections such as the common cold and influenza, which can be transmitted by respiratory droplets (both airborne and on surfaces such as door handles and eating utensils), can be reduced by practising good respiratory hygiene. This includes:
• Turning away from others when coughing or sneezing.
• Covering the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
• Disposing of used tissues in a waste basket or rubbish bin.
• If a tissue is not available, coughing or sneezing into the arm – not the hands. An
• After coughing or sneezing, washing hands with soap and water or cleaning them with an alcohol-based hand rub.
Alcohol hand rubs are effective for reducing bacterial and viral contamination on the hands. However, these products are not effective for cleaning dirty hands. If soap and water are not available, and provided the hands are not visibly dirty, an alcohol-based hand rub can certainly be used.
Many infectious diseases can be prevented by immunisation with an appropriate vaccine. And the risks from these diseases that immunisation prevents are far greater than the very small risks of the immunisation itself. Comprehensive information about vaccines which are available in Australia can be found in the Australian Immunisation Handbook. It's online, too, at www.immunise.health.gov.au The Department of Health and Ageing also publishes a booklet titled Immunisation, Myths and Realities. It puts the immunisation debate into proper perspective with an objective view of the risks and the benefits.
More advice about preventing, or at least reducing the risk of, infection can be obtained from High Wycombe Pharmacy. There are special “fact cards” on Antibiotics, Childhood Immunisation, Travel Health and a number of specific infectious diseases.