Post 300 – 2012, the Year of the Plague

As it turns out, this is post 300 and I’m going to use it to make a far more opinionated point than usual. I’m currently in Auckland, New Zealand, and there is a warning up on the wall about a severe outbreak of measles. This is one of the most outrageously stupid signs to see on a wall, anywhere, given that we have had a solid vaccine since 1971 and, despite ill-informed and unscientific studies that try to contradict this, the overall impact of the MMR vaccine is overwhelmingly positive. There is no reasonable excuse for the outbreak of an infectious, dangerous disease 40 years after the development of a reliable (and overwhelmingly safe) vaccine.

Is this really what we want?

My fear is that, rather than celebrating the elimination of measles and polio (under 200 cases this year so far according to the records I’ve seen) in the same way that we eradicated smallpox, we will be seeing more and more of these signs identifying outbreaks of eradicable and controllable diseases, because ignorance is holding sway.

Be in no doubt, if we keep going down this path, the risk increases rapidly that a disease will finish us off because we will not have the correct mental framing and scientific support to quickly respond to a lethal outbreak or mutation. The risk we take is that, one day, our cities lie empty with signs like this up all over the place, doors sealed with crosses on them, a quiet end to a considerable civilisation. All attributable to a rejection of solid scientific evidence and the triumph of ignorance. We have survived massive outbreaks before, even those with high lethality, but we have been, for want of a better word, lucky. We live in much denser environments and are far more connected than we were before. I can step around the world in a day and, with every step, a disease can follow my footsteps.

One of my students recently plotted 2009 Flu cases relative to air routes. While disease used to rely upon true geographical contiguity, we now connect the world with the false adjacency of the air route. Outbreaks in isolated parts of the world map beautifully to the air hubs and their importance and utilisation: more people, higher disease.

So, in short, it’s not just the way that we control the controllable diseases that is important, it is accepting that the lower risk of vaccination is justifiable in the light of the much greater risk of infection and pandemic. This fights the human tendency to completely misunderstand probability, our susceptibility to fallacious thinking, and our desperate desire to do no harm to our children. I get this but we have to be a little bit smarter or we are putting ourselves at a much higher risk – regrettably, this is a future risk so temporal discounting gets thrown into the mix to make it ever harder for people to make a good decision.

Here’s what the Smallpox Wikipedia page says: “Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans” (emphasis mine). This is one of the most amazing things that we have achieved. Let’s do it again!

I talk a lot about education, in terms of my thoughts on learning and teaching, but we must never forget why we educate. It’s to enlighten, to inform, to allow us to direct our considerable resources to solving the considerable problems that beset us. It’s helping people to make good decisions. It’s being aware of why people find it so hard to accept scientific evidence: because they’re scared, because someone lied to them, because no-one has gone to the trouble to actually try and explain it to them properly. Ignorance of a subject is the state that we occupy before we become informed and knowledgable. It’s not a permanent state!

That sign made me angry. But it underlined the importance of what it is that we do.

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