Global Health Ideas

Finding global health solutions through innovation and technology

Of Pandemics, Fear, the Facts and You

It seems that an influenza virus can survive on money for up to 10 days, and the New York Times has an interesting article on modeling virus spread on dollar bills.

But one thing remains true: “People have a very weird perception of large numbers,” [Dr. Brockmann] said. “If you have 2,000 cases of flu in a country of 300 million, most people think they’re going to be one of the 2,000, not one of the 299,998,000.”

I think people have a wierd perception of risk, and that is often influenced by media attention. Which reminds me of a memorable article from the New York Times Op-Ed page in 2003 – remember West Nile Virus? “Never Bitten, Twice Shy – The Real Dangers of Summer” by Ropeik and Holmes.

Never Bitten, Twice Shy - The Real Dangers of Summer (2003)

Never Bitten, Twice Shy - The Real Dangers of Summer (2003)

Yes, the graphic is not perfect (see this critique at Edward Tufte’s blog), but does get across the idea that risk perception is not always influenced by the facts. And is expanded in this article in Health Affairs “Dealing with the Dangers of Fear: The Role of Risk Communication” by Gray and Ropeik.

Ok, but what about the facts? The fast moving breaking news often plays fast and loose with the truth, and can spread alarming information. Early reports of the swine flu in Mexico seemed to have extremely high mortality reports, especially among young adults. Now, with new evidence of confirmed cases, the virus is looking alot milder. When I first read that influenza virus could survive for 10 days on money, I thought it was another casualty of the truth, as the avian-human-swine flu reported in a press briefing by the CDC. However, in this case, the facts seem to check out (Survival of Influenza Virus on Banknotes, Thomas et al), unlike the potluck origins of the swine flu which ProMED reported to be, upon closer examination – just swine flu.

More on risk perception:

Here’s a conversation with David Ropeik in the New York Times, and he wrote a book with George Gray – Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You

Reckoning with Risk: Learning to Live with Uncertainty – Gerd Gigerenzer

Can’t get enough of risk? Check out the Risk-0-meters and calculate your own health risk at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis

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Written by farzaneh

May 4, 2009 at 10:44 am

2 Responses

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  1. During the summer months there exist a high risk for infection due to the pollen in the air and the risk for contracting an illness are greater. The news the influenza virus can live on the dollar for over ten days is alarming when you consider how many times money changes hands in an hours, or an a day, or a week. That is a lot of people coming in to contact with an infectious note. So the chances of contracting disease are relatively high. What should be our main focus is prevention because it is impossible to stop money from circulating in our economy. One avenue of prevention would be hand washing, in theory it sound like a solution but in practice in seem impractical. With other infections such as the swine flu it would seem that the report have been greatly embellished but none the less sanitary measures must still be used whenever handling money, food, blood and other bodily fluids.

    Kenidd Fevry

    April 15, 2013 at 7:29 pm

  2. Recently, over the course of a week, in the U.S. there was 1 death from swine flu and 5,769 deaths from obesity. How’s that for perspective. . .
    Deborah Barnett, Ph.D.

    Deborah Barnett, PhD

    May 5, 2009 at 9:23 pm


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