There are probably only two things that could kill a million Americans quickly: nuclear war or a biological event.
But even without a catastrophic natural or man-made attack, and despite the enormous progress we have made in the past century, microbes continue to take a deadly toll on us here at home.
Every year, 75,000 Americans die with infections caught in hospitals, and tens of thousands of Americans die from influenza and pneumonia.
What’s more, influenza often triggers heart attacks. Another 20,000 Americans die each year from hepatitis C and 10,000 to 15,000 more from HIV.
Those are just the deaths.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are hospitalized each year for influenza and other infections. Millions of Americans contract sexually transmitted infections each year, an increasing proportion of them drug-resistant, many causing infertility or complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease.
Ebola and Zika appropriately make headlines, but deadly infections are spreading, often silently, in our communities, hospitals and food.
When it comes to these common — yet deadly — pandemics, we can all play a major role curbing their spread. The life you save may be your own.
There are simple, everyday actions every one of us can take so we, our families and our communities are safer and healthier. Most of these are common sense. Mother was right when she told you to:
? Wash your hands. Washing your hands before, during and after preparing food, before you eat, after you use a toilet, before and after caring for someone who’s sick, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and after touching animal waste or garbage — all drastically reduce your risk of getting and spreading infection.
? Don’t smoke. Smoking poisons your lungs’ defenses against infection, increasing your risk of pneumonia and other problems. In addition, smoking makes you feel a decade older, shortens your life by a decade, and greatly increases the likelihood of becoming disabled from disorders it often causes such as stroke, blindness, emphysema and leg amputation or dying from cancer, heart attacks, strokes and other diseases.
? Get physical activity. Even if you don’t lose an ounce of weight, moderate physical activity, such as three brisk 10-minute walks a day, increases your resistance to infection.
? Get enough sleep. Most people need at least seven hours of sleep a night; less sleep weakens your immune system.
? Don’t drink too much alcohol, and don’t binge drink. Alcohol makes your immune cells sluggish. (Too much is defined as more than an average of two drinks a day for men, one drink a day for women. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks at a sitting for men and three or more for women.)
? Wear a condom. There are an estimated 20 million new sexually transmitted infections in the United States each year, about half among those age 15 to 24. Condoms significantly reduce your risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. People rarely know they are infected, so play it safe.
? Get your shots. Immunizations are one of the greatest advances of science and have saved hundreds of millions of lives. Get your kids vaccinated on time to protect them from infections and cancer, and make sure you’re up to date with your HPV, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough and other shots, especially if you’re pregnant or have a condition such as diabetes or lung disease.
? Stay home if you’re sick. If you have a fever, stay home. Do yourself a favor by resting and do a favor to people with whom you work and interact outside of your home by not getting them sick, too.
There are other actions to take that go beyond everyday activities. For one thing, all of us — doctors and patients — need a healthier relationship with medications; we are taking too many antibiotics and too many opiates.
Only take them when essential, but if you’re prescribed antibiotics, take the full course. Antibiotics change the friendly bacteria in our bodies, and we need these bacteria to get vitamins from food, have normal digestion and prevent serious infections such as Clostridium difficile, an infection associated with 15,000 deaths a year in the United States.
Think twice before you ask for antibiotics, and find out if they are really needed. Other medications, such as opiates, may increase your risk of a serious infection.
You can also protect your own health by supporting your local and state health departments. The public health doctors, nurses and disease detectives there keep you safe by inspecting and responding to possible problems in your food supply, water, air and health care facilities.
Support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; its programs not only save lives, they also save money. Tell your representatives in Congress that cutting the budget of the CDC costs American lives and taxpayer dollars.
The CDC works 24/7 to protect you by identifying, stopping and preventing threats to your health from this country or anywhere in the world. Support an emergency fund at the CDC that will allow it to act immediately when a new health threat emerges rather than waiting months for Congress to act.
Finally, recognize that we are part of global community. Viruses don’t need visas, and infectious diseases can hurt Americans’ health and our economy. The world is inextricably interconnected.
We need to continue to support health in countries around the world, particularly through global health security programs that improve each country’s own ability to find and stop outbreaks. And we also need to hold countries, governments and civil society accountable for protecting and improving health.
Ultimately, our personal health depends, to a significant degree, on how we as a society address health.
If health care workers in nursing homes don’t get an influenza shot each year, residents of those nursing homes are more likely die during flu season. If our hospitals don’t prevent infections more effectively, a routine procedure could turn deadly.
This isn’t a question of government responsibility versus personal responsibility — it’s about all of us being responsible.
So please do your part. It may seem too simple, but it’s true that washing your hands regularly and staying home if you’re sick can make a big difference to your own health and the health of your family and community.
And know that all of our health depends on health departments, health care facilities, and governments in this country and around the world getting public health right.