Finding the source of a disease outbreak requires intensive detective work from health experts. But is finding Patient Zero even possible?

SeekerPublished: July 10, 2018Updated: July 11, 2018
Published: July 10, 2018Updated: July 11, 2018

When you think of how to stop a major disease outbreak, you're probably thinking of a scene from a medical thriller; where a world renowned virologist is helicoptered out in a race against time to find the person who's the source of the infection: the Patient Zero. Patient Zero isn't just a Hollywood creation. It's a real thing in the medical community and it identifies the first carrier of a disease in an outbreak. Identifying the origin of a disease helps scientists understand and prevent future pandemics.

These things have to start somewhere, but figuring out who Patient Zero is requires a great deal of detective work. Health experts go out into the field and map the transmission of a virus. They follow a molecular game of telephone (called contact tracing) which involves searching for everyone who came into contact with a sick patient.

According to an epidemiologist we spoke to, it's helpful to find out how a virus travels through a community. It's a way to classify the disease (as airborne or food borne for instance) and work on a vaccine.

Though movies tell a different story, finding Patient Zero isn't as big a deal as preventing an outbreak from spreading. Plus... searching for the scapegoat in situations like this can easily turn into a public witch hunt.

 

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