Sunday, May 3, 2009

Living with the Swine Flu -- thoughts on modern disasters

When I was in high school, some of the students who were more mechanically and electronically gifted than I was, figured out a way to tap into the school's clock system. By getting on a table and plugging some wires into one of the clocks in an empty room, they were able to do several things; one was to run all the clocks in the school backwards, another was to ring the class bells out of sequence. As a result, they got the idea to sound a fire alarm. I think security in the empty classrooms was increased dramatically after the third or fourth fire drill, marching all of the students out to the parking lots.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a vastly more advanced system of warning for Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response (EPR). They have organized a Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network for the technical collaboration of existing institutions and networks who pool human and technical resources for the rapid identification, confirmation and response to outbreaks of international importance. WHO. In the current outbreak of Swine Flu (now politically correctly renamed Influenza A(H1N1) virus) in the past week, the Level of Pandemic Alert has gone to an unprecedented Level 5.

Now, I am not claiming that someone is "ringing the bells" at the World Health Organization, but I am pointing out the fact that a small input of information from an unexpected source (boys in an empty classroom) can create a huge reaction (entire school out in the parking lot). This effect comes about because the system apparently has no way to evaluate the difference between a "real" emergency and one that is part of the background noise of our complex society.

The latest report from the WHO as of May 3, 2009 showed 898 confirmed cases of Swine Flu (now influenza A(H1N1) infection world wide. There have been 19 deaths reported in Mexico and 1 death in the U.S. Otherwise, there have been no other reported deaths in the entire world.

Now, given the huge incidence of Swine Flu in the last two weeks, what can we find out from the online statistics? First of all according to the Centers for Disease Control, this specific strain of influenza, type A (H1N1) has been reported for years. In the 2007 to 2008 Flu Season, from October 1, 2007 to May 17, 2008 there were 1,020 verified cases of influenza A (H1N1) in the United States alone. Don't take my word for it, check out the source. As of June 19, 2008, 83 deaths associated with laboratory-confirmed influenza infections have occurred among children aged < 18 years during the 2007--08 influenza season that were reported to CDC. These deaths were reported from 33 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin).

Look at the data! There is no way that the current cases of influenza could have all come from Mexico. Given the fact that this same strain of flu has been infecting people for years, there is nothing about the current outbreak that can differentiate it from the background noise of infection.

When we are standing in the parking lot, how do we know whether or not the alarm was "real" or not? In the case of Swine Flu, before you start wearing a mask outside or cancel your trip in an airplane, you might want to look a little deeper into the alarm being raised.

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