Got a Virus? Its Name Matters More Than You Think

A sick woman sneezing into a tissue.

(© Subbotina Anna/Fotolia)

It's a familiar scenario: You show up at the doctor feeling miserable—sneezing, coughing, lethargic. We've all been there. And we've all been told the same answer: we're suffering from "a virus."

Failing to establish a specific microbial cause undermines the health of individual patients—and potentially the public at large.

Some patients may be satisfied with that diagnosis, others may be frustrated, and still others may demand antibiotic treatment for a bacterial infection that is usually not even present. As an infectious disease doctor who specializes in pandemic preparedness, I detest using the catch-all "virus" diagnosis for a range of symptoms from common colds to life-threatening pneumonias to unexplained fevers. Failing to establish a specific microbial cause undermines the health of individual patients—and potentially the public at large.

Confirming a specific diagnosis to determine which virus is behind those nasty symptoms is not just an academic exercise. The benefits are plentiful. Patients can forego antibiotic treatment, possibly benefit from antiviral treatment, understand their illness, and be given a prognosis. Additionally, if hospitalized, patients with certain viral infections require specific types of precautions so as not to spread the virus within the hospital.

Another largely undervalued benefit of such an approach is that it allows experts to begin assembling an arsenal of tools that might stave off a global health catastrophe. With severe pandemics, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people, it can be challenging to predict which of the myriad microbial species (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, prions) will be the most likely cause. Many different approaches to prediction exist, but there is a general lack of rigorous analysis about what it takes for any microorganism to reach the pantheon of pandemic pathogens. My colleagues and I at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently developed a new framework to understand the characteristics of pandemic pathogens.

One of our major conclusions is that the most likely pandemic pathogen will be viral and spread through respiratory means. Viruses rise to the top of the list because, when compared to other types of infectious agents, they have several features that confer pandemic potential: they mutate a lot, the speed of infection is rapid, and there are no broad-spectrum antivirals akin to broad-spectrum antibacterial agents. Contagion through breathing, coughing, and sneezing is likely because it is much more difficult for standard public health measures to extinguish respiratory spread agents compared to other routes of transmission like food, body fluids, or mosquitoes.

With this information, physicians and scientists can begin taking actions to prevent spread of the infection by developing vaccines, testing antiviral compounds, and making diagnostic tests for concerning viruses.

Many of the viral families that could pose a pandemic threat are very common causes of upper respiratory infections like influenza, the common cold, and bronchitis. These viruses cause a wide range of illnesses from mild coughs to serious pneumonias. Indeed, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic virus was discovered in San Diego in a child with very mild illness in whom viral diagnostic testing was pursued. This event highlights the fact that such diseases are not only found in exotic locations in the developing world, but could appear anywhere.

Understanding the patterns of respiratory virus infections -- how frequent they are, which strains are predominating, changes in severity of disease, expanding geographic range -- may provide a glimpse into the first forays of a new human virus or an alert to changing behavior from a well-known virus. With this information, physicians and scientists can begin taking actions to prevent spread of the infection by developing vaccines, testing antiviral compounds, and making diagnostic tests for concerning viruses. Additionally, alerts to healthcare providers will provide greater situational awareness of the patterns of infection.

So, the next time you are given a wastebasket diagnosis of "viral syndrome," push your doctor a little harder. In 2018, we have countless diagnostic tests for viral infections available, many at the point-of-care, that too few physicians use. Not only will you be more satisfied with a real diagnosis, you may be spared an unnecessary course of antibiotics. You can also rest assured that having a name for your virus will help epidemiologists doing a very important job. While we have not yet technologically achieved the famed Tricorder of Star Trek fame that diagnoses everything with a sweep of the hand, using the tools we do have could be one of the keys to detecting the next pandemic virus early enough to intervene.

Amesh A. Adalja

Dr. Adalja is focused on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity. He has served on US government panels tasked with developing guidelines for the treatment of plague, botulism, and anthrax in mass casualty settings and the system of care for infectious disease emergencies, and as an external advisor to the New York City Health and Hospital Emergency Management Highly Infectious Disease training program, as well as on a FEMA working group on nuclear disaster recovery. Dr. Adalja is an Associate Editor of the journal Health Security. He was a coeditor of the volume Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, a contributing author for the Handbook of Bioterrorism and Disaster Medicine, the Emergency Medicine CorePendium, Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple, UpToDate's section on biological terrorism, and a NATO volume on bioterrorism. He has also published in such journals as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Emerging Infectious Diseases, and the Annals of Emergency Medicine. He is a board-certified physician in internal medicine, emergency medicine, infectious diseases, and critical care medicine. Follow him on Twitter: @AmeshAA

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Robin Cavendish in his special wheelchair with his son Jonathan in the 1960s.

Cavendish family

In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.

Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

Kirstie Ennis, an Afghanistan veteran who survived a helicopter crash but lost a limb, pictured in May 2021 at Two Rivers Park in Colorado.

Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram

In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.

Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.

In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.

On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.

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Melba Newsome
Melba Newsome is an independent science and health journalist whose work has appeared in Health Affairs, Scientific American, Prevention, Politico, Everyday Health and North Carolina Health News. She received the June Roth Award for Medical Journalism for a feature on genetic testing in Oprah magazine. She currently serves as core topic leader on health equity for the Association of Healthcare Journalists.