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5 Most Likely Real-Life Contagions

In the movie “Contagion,” a cast of Hollywood elites contend with a global pandemic. When a fictional virus goes airborne, kills quickly and spreads globally, you have a good movie. When it happens in real life you have a global pandemic like no other. Unfortunantly the movie Contagion hits close to home. The human race is always just a couple of mutations away from apocalypse.

Here are the top five pathogens that are most similar to the fictional disease in “Contagion.”


In 1918 a strain of influenza killed millions, and the 2009 H1N1 outbreak brought brought fears that  that influenza had yet again turnd into a deadly pandemic. And because the flu mutates in animals and can jump to humans, epidemiologists could never rid humans of influenza through vaccination campaigns, said Dr. Tomas Aragon, director of the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Infectious Disease and Emergency Readiness.  Swine flu and bird flu both mutated inside animals and then spread to humans.

Fevers, aches, sore throats, cough and fatigue are signs of the flu. But the big danger is pneumonia, which can be deadly if a strain is particularly virulent. “Right now all the subtypes live in wild birds, and they’re mutating, and when they come to the human population, we’re not immune.” Aragon said.


If it was not for swift international actions, including closing schools, quarantining sick people and issuing travel advisories, SARS would have been a real life global pandemic. When the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) struck in 2003, it showed how a deadly pandemic may hit the globe. That year there were an estimated 8,000 cases and 750 deaths, according to the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.

The SARS virus is a virulent mutation of a virus in the coronavirus family — viruses in this family also cause the common cold and are very hard to treat. “It was so pathogenic, that almost everybody who became infected became ill,” Aragon said of the 2003 SARS outbreak in East Asia.

SARS symptoms include fever, headache and cough, and often quickly turned to pneumonia. SARS had a 9 to 12 percent death rate among people who were diagnosed, according to the NIH. And in people older than 65, the death rate was more than 50 percent!

SARS spreads through airborne droplets much like the flu, but much remains unknown about its origins. The virus could mutate again in animal hosts and jump back to humans. “SARS, even though it’s disappeared, could return at any time,” said Dr. Ali S. Khan, director of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness.


Anthrax is generally under control in naturem but could turn into deadly outbreaks if used as a bioterrorism weapon. “Anthrax is most concerning,” said Aragon, of potential bioterrorism threats.

Anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) can infect humans in three ways, and each route of transmission leads to different symptoms, ranging from an itchy sore on the skin to breathing problems, fever, shock, and death.

In 2001, 22 people became ill after breathing in anthrax spores sent through the mail. Inhaling anthrax can lead to a deadly infection. Once anthrax spores germinate, they release toxic substances that cause internal bleeding, swelling and can kill tissue, according to the NIH. The CDC estimates 75 percent of people who contract anthrax by inhaling spores will die, even with medical care.


Some pathogens cause trouble not so much because they kill quickly, but because they can’t be killed easily. “Another infection that’s widespread in the world, and we are holding it at bay, is tuberculosis, or TB,” said Dr. William Schaffner, former board member of the IDSA.

Many believe that TB has been under control since the mid 1800’s, but the truth is TB kills about 2 million people every year (and climbing), making it one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

Spread through airborne droplets, TB can survive in a person for years, slowly spreading to others throughout a community without any signs to the carrier. Symptoms include a chronic cough, severe weight loss and night sweats.

With drug-resistant forms of TB becoming more and more of a problem, doctors warn that they will no longer be able to control a disease that afflicted much of the world before the development of antibiotics and that TB may quickly become a pandemic again.


The Ebola virus might not kill as many people each year as TB, but it is still one of the deadliest pathogens. The most virulent strains of Ebola kill 25 to 90 percent of people they infect.

All four strains of the Ebola virus known to infect humans are spread through contact with blood, tissue or bodily fluids. Ebola silently incubates in a person for days, after which the carrier may suffer a sudden fever and headache, according to the CDC. Joint and muscle aches, sore throat and weakness usually give way to diarrhea, vomiting and severe stomach pain. The virus breaks down the clotting factor in your blood so that your blood becomes thin like water and you end up bleeding internally and externally until you eventually die from blood loss or dehydration.

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Sergeant Survival

I spread the news of disaster preparedness and homesteading skills to the masses. My mission is to teach the keyboard commandos out there some real life skills.

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