A study from Princeton University has found that current non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) being utilized to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) make it likely that larger, delayed outbreaks of other diseases will occur soon.
The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that NPIs being employed against COVID-19, such as the wearing of face masks and the following of social distancing protocols, are effective at greatly reducing the incidence of the coronavirus as well as many other diseases like the flu.
Unfortunately, the researchers believe that the current reductions in the incidence of common respiratory infections are merely postponing future outbreaks.
“Declines in case numbers of severe respiratory pathogens have been observed recently in many global locations,” said Rachel Baker, first author of the study and associate research scholar for Princeton’s High Meadows Environmental Institute.
“While this reduction in cases could be interpreted as a positive side effect of COVID-19 prevention, the reality is much more complex. Our results suggest that susceptibility to these other diseases, such as [respiratory syncytial virus] and flu, could increase while NPIs are in place, resulting in large outbreaks when they begin circulating again.”
Deadly outbreaks of influenza and RSV likely as NPIs remain in place
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a condition endemic to the United States. It is a leading cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants. The study examined historical data on RSV to see how social distancing measures implemented during the coronavirus pandemic may affect future outbreaks. They found that even short periods of observing NPIs can cause larger RSV outbreaks in the future.
The researchers believe that such an outbreak will only occur once NPI practices are no longer in place. They believe the earliest an outbreak of RSV can occur will be sometime during the winter of 2021 to 2022.
Baker and the other researchers also investigated how NPIs may affect the seasonal flu outbreak. Their findings show similar results to their in-depth look at RSV, but they admit that predicting the development of the flu is more difficult due to the uncertainty surrounding which strains of influenza will circulate each year.
Society needs to prepare for future outbreaks
None of the researchers have ignored the fact that it is undoubtedly a good thing that influenza and RSV cases have dropped all over the globe thanks to the impact of NPIs. They believe that other diseases might also be impacted by these policies over the long term. However, more research needs to be done to reach such a definitive conclusion.
Despite this, Baker and the other researchers believe that societies must begin preparing for the worst post-coronavirus outbreaks that are to come. At the earliest, the United States has a year before such an outbreak will occur.
“It is very important to prepare for this possible future outbreak risk and to pay attention to the full gamut of infections infected by COVID-19 NPIs,” she said. (Related: Fight the coronavirus with proper diet and good nutrition.)
To learn more about the potential effects NPIs have on societies, Baker and the other researchers point to similar historical pandemics which saw the use of NPIs play key roles in preventing outbreaks, such as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Data from London showed that, once the city lifted its NPIs, the city shifted from dealing with measles annually to biennially.
Baker and the other researchers are recommending that public health officials use tools such as serology to better map the country’s susceptibility to RSV and influenza outbreaks. Planning, they believe, can prevent life-threatening changes in the future.
Learn more about the latest coronavirus-related research at Pandemic.news.
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