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Infectious Diseases in the Modern World

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

From the common cold to illnesses once thought extinct, there are plenty of infectious diseases that get passed around on a daily basis. Although many of the symptoms of these are known and fully documented, technological advances in nearly every field of daily life have created serious differences in how they are passed between hosts. 


The fact that a lot of us work online is a factor potentially impacting the spread of infectious diseases. According to the United States Department of Labor, 2019 saw nearly sixty percent of companies allowing either full or partial remote work. For many, this creates an automatic quarantine for ill workers, allowing them to remain safely away from the healthy workforce while not losing any productivity.

Conversely, the office environment itself is another important factor in the spread of disease. Offices as a whole tend to be sheltered areas with controlled climates. The same efforts that go into making an office a comfortable working space for people also create ideal conditions for transmissible diseases to survive outside a host. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, the workplace has become such a likely point of exposure that many companies are instituting policies against sick workers coming in at all. 


“According to the United States Department of Labor, 2019 saw nearly sixty percent of companies allowing either full or partial remote work.”


Other features of an average office make it a breeding ground to spread illnesses. An office will tend to have many surfaces that are used several times throughout the day by everyone present. At the same time, ventilation systems help to circulate airborne diseases and are often used in lieu of fresh air that might aid the immune system to reject the disease. Shared restrooms and trash bins can create a similar effect.

Public transit is a similarly inviting environment for infectious diseases. Like the workplace, it offers a sheltered area where many people will use the same surfaces and remain in close contact with one another for some time. A study by the United States National Library of Medicine on the London Underground found a pronounced and direct correlation between transit use and the spread of diseases like influenza–and these results that have been replicated in many other central transit systems. 

The worst environment of all offenders when it comes to spreading illness? It is likely to be air travel. The European Center for Disease Control has found air travel among the leading causes of circulating cold, influenza, and similar illnesses with nearly nine hundred million passengers in the European Union alone, many of whom are actively sick or incubating sickness. Air travel also allows vectors to cross distances and climates that would otherwise form impassable barriers for infectious disease: H1N1 and SARS were both proven to have been introduced into new countries by air travel from affected countries. 


The decisive and extensive research on this matter has prompted many organizations, from national governments to public schools, to begin to promote non-pharmaceutical intervention to prevent the spread of disease through the public. Even though most diseases spread in this manner are not fatal, everyone can be spared an unpleasant experience if the infected party recognizes the symptoms and keeps away from others until they are well.


Many countries have seen a recent outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 virus that has put all of these factors squarely in the public spotlight. Because the virus spreads from close contact or particles of saliva or mucus (known by many as droplets) that transfer from person to person, it has particular potential to spread in the manners mentioned. To combat this, several governments have adopted a strategy of closing as many businesses as they can to minimize exposure to the mainstream public. Working from home has become the lifeline that keeps some sectors operating, as quarantined or isolated individuals seek ways to keep their share of the workload without endangering others. While no method of prevention is foolproof, these measures have succeeded in protecting large segments of the world’s population, making the pandemic less severe than it might have been. 

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