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Networks v. Epidemics
Alex Steffen, 2 Jan 04

Bruce Sterling with more on how networked approaches to fighting epidemics are paying off:

"The old way of containing contagion was the "brick wall" approach; i.e., rigorous border quarantine. The method that beat SARS is altogether new. It's high on rapid reaction, low on bureaucracy, and indifferent to national borders. It involves drafting preparedness plans, setting up early-warning surveillance systems, stockpiling drugs and medical gear in handy locations, and getting the planet's medical research boffins onto the same page. Then it pounces on the disease wherever it may be.

"The pioneers in this method are outfits like the World Health Organization's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network. Born in 2000, Goarn is a very young network connecting national ministries of health, scientific institutes, and nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Medical Emergency Relief International. Understanding the dire need for speed, epidemic medicine is reshaping itself around its networks and databases, such as Global Public Health Intelligence Network, FluNet, PacNet, and PulseNet.

"There are three fronts in the war on epidemics. The scariest involves emergent pathogens whose skills and tactics are barely known: not only SARS but Ebola, Nipah, and Marburg. The second consists of better-understood scourges, such as cholera, flu, measles, dengue, AIDS, and a dark host of others. The third would be biowar, if it were to happen.

"Goarn's method has already proven itself on the first front, and we may soon know whether it can work on the second. WHO's five-year-old scheme to eradicate malaria received a recent financial boost from Bill Gates, just in time to take advantage of lessons learned in fighting SARS. Beating malaria will require sweat and fieldwork in some vicious places, but it will also take careful monitoring, common data standards, and the rapid sharing of problems, information, and solutions worldwide. Those things were impossible in the brick-wall days, but they can be done now."

(For more on the subject, see Jamais' piece on Network Thinking for Immunization.)

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