Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Terrorism Concern: Scientists Asked to Withhold “Bird Flu” Data

Photo: The Guardian

Here's the story's lead-in: "For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics."  To read the article from the New York Times, click the link below:

HEALTH | December 21, 2011
Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has urged Science and Nature to keep details out of reports that they intend to publish on a highly transmissible form of the bird flu.

Comment: In the age we now live, any major pandemic, whether it is man-made or naturally occurring, in human beings or animals, really only has one hope of containment - situational awareness through geospatial technologies.  Beyond understanding "where" to direct the fight, geospatial technologies are key to tracing virus movement, anticipating future outbreaks, and setting containment zones.  Such was the case with the very serious outbreak of Hoof and Mouth in Great Britain and Northern Europe in 2001.  By the time the disease manifest itself, it was already multi-nodal due to the extensive and rapid movement of animals facilitated by modern agriculture.  Thus, the only way to comprehensively understand how to put the genie back in the bottle in a situation like that was through a geospatially driven approach (re: Minnesota Veterinary Observer, Dale Neirby). 

With regard to bird flu, to date efforts have focused primarily on anticipating transmission from native species.  In 2010, Ecology and Society, hosted a series of papers on "risk mapping" of avian influenza.  Although "risk mapping" is less about location and more about transmission factors for most authors on this subject matter, one exception is Professor A. Townsend Peterson of the University of Kansas.  Through lots of hard work that included combing more than 50 plus years of Audubon bird watcher reports, Professor Townsend developed an extensive transmission model for the North American continent that predicts further points of outbreak based on location of the first confirmed case, date and bird type.  

Unfortunately, the greater response community doesn't seem to understand that dynamic geospatial awareness is essential to limiting the pandemic transmission process in the human population.  On one hand, the medical community, from the Centers for Disease Control on down, appear to be thinking about geospatial technology circa 2006 - static map products used to relate post event statistics.  Additionally, current daily disease outbreak reporting and the next generation of health records include scant location capability relative to what is possible.  On the other hand, the emergency management community, has neither the expertise, nor capacity, to engage the medical community on the issue.  Consequently, the potential for real-time situational awareness reporting from the medical community is still decades away.   Given the very real possibility that an easily mutated deadly bird flu virus could now end up in the wrong hands, it might be prudent for us to collectively rethink our engagement on this issue.         

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