(As previously, spoilers abound)

So on this week’s Walking Dead soap opera, we find that Daryl/Michonne’s group is still out and about searching for medical supplies. Back at the prison, the food situation is dire (apparently all the food stores were in the cell block where the infection broke out), so Rick and Carol head out to look for both medicines and food from the local ‘burbs. During their outing, discussion ensues of Carol’s attempt to stop the prison’s apparent influenza outbreak by killing two people who, at that point, were the only ones showing symptoms of disease. Rick decides he can’t trust her, and ends up banishing her from the group.

Carol said multiple times that she was trying to do the right thing, to protect the rest of the group from those who were sick and was only trying to end the outbreak. However, here’s where some knowledge of infectious disease would have helped her. Every disease has an incubation period: the time when the microbe is multiplying in your body, but you’re not showing any physical disease symptoms yet. This can be short–as little as perhaps a few hours for something like Salmonella food poisoning. It can be extremely extended, as I mentioned with rabies virus in my previous post, where the incubation period can be months to years. With influenza, the typical incubation period is 2 days, but it can be as short as 1 or as long as 4-5. The kicker is that a person who’s incubating flu can still spread it even before they show symptoms of the illness. So just because Karen and David were the only ones actively coughing and looking miserable, Carol was mistaken in her assumption that they were the only ones infected, and that she could stop the outbreak by snuffing them.

This is the difference between two similar concepts, quarantine and isolation. People who have been *exposed* to an infectious agent, but are not yet showing any signs of illness, can be quarantined to keep them away from others due to their *potential* to spread a disease. Those who are already showing signs and symptoms are placed into *isolation* to keep them from spreading it–they’re a known quantity. The prison group has used primarily isolation to keep the infection from spreading: they’re putting the ill in the Death Row cell blocks as an isolation area, and those who are well can roam around as they choose. (Maggie, for instance, hasn’t been sent to quarantine even though she clearly was exposed to the illness by being in such close contact with Glenn).

However, one thing that the group hasn’t yet determined (probably because no one has recovered as of yet) is how long they’re going to keep anyone who gets better in the isolation area. Though adults usually stop releasing influenza virus even before their symptoms are completely gone, kids can shed the virus for a long time: up to two weeks after their symptoms started according to one study (and others have found similar results). So while right now they have the healthy young children segregated from everyone else for their own protection, in theory, if Lizzie (the flu-infected child currently in held in isolation) gets well and is released back to the healthy kid’s room, she could simply re-start the outbreak there, among the most susceptible. 

This is why disease eradication is so difficult, and why it’s been accomplished for so few pathogens to date: many pathogens can spread on the sly, even when people don’t know they’re sick. For influenza, even if it’s knocked down in this group (and of course, it soon will be one way or another–at some point, the susceptible hosts in the prison will be exhausted, either by infection & recovery or by death), there is always another reservoir of disease out there. It may be other humans. Darryl/Michonne’s group finally made it to the veterinary school mentioned two episodes ago, and the zombies they ended up fighting there had clinical signs that looked an awful lot like the survivors had seen at the prison: blood that had come from the eyes and nose. Had flu been circulating there as well? It’s a vet school, pigs could certainly be housed (there were a number of animal cages, and could easily be an outdoor space for livestock somewhere). So pigs could be serving as a reservoir. Flu can also come from a number of other animals–most notably, birds, who don’t even have to appear sick to transmit the infection to people.

Infections can be sneaky and unseen, as this group should well know.

See also:

Part I: the microbiology of zombies

Part II: ineffective treatments and how not to survive the apocalypse

Part III: “We’re all infected”

    Current ye@r *