History Doesn’t Have to Repeat Itself
(cross-posted on Microsoft on the Issues)
My family and I just got back from a vacation in Mexico, so the news that’s on everyone’s mind—the spread of H1N1 Influenza A—is weighing even more heavily on me. With the media hype machine driving minute by minute coverage, it’s hard not to think about devastating epidemics and pandemics of the past—typhoid fever, smallpox, bubonic plague, cholera, Spanish Flu, typhus, tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDs—illnesses that spread uncontrollably and killed millions.
While we should be concerned, we should also remember just how far we’ve come in facing these challenges. Today, the Internet, blogs, instant messaging, and other technologies can disseminate information about new threats and new medical knowledge faster than ever before. Technology gives us the opportunity to face these crises better than we have in the past.
Yet we still have a long way to go. The identification of threats and the transmission of basic information remains a fundamental challenge. News of the recent outbreak broke on April 24th—18 days after public health officials started investigating unusual cases of respiratory illness in Mexico. Eighteen days doesn’t sound like a long time, but in the world of infectious diseases, it can be the different between life and death. According to The Rapid Syndrome Validation Project, a delay of even one day in detecting certain diseases like smallpox could mean the "…difference between the loss and salvage of as much as 90 percent of an exposed population.” I think we all can agree that we can do better than 18 days.
And now as the disease progresses, do we have the right information platforms in place to enable front line workers and public health folks to gather, transmit, analyze data, and ultimately act? We have a highly fragmented health system in the US, and it is much more complex when you look globally, where we have language barriers and in many regions, no infrastructure in place. Since SARS and the anthrax attacks, there have been a lot of pilot projects and investment in infrastructure – but perhaps not yet enough. More importantly, I believe that a “separate” infrastructure for public health (or the buzz word ‘bio-surveillance’) isn’t the best approach because systems that aren’t used every day are never up to date. Just look at the challenges and barriers to the CDC’s BioSense National Program—a program with admirable goals, but limited results in terms of hospitals actually reporting data. A better approach is to have flexible enterprise data systems that allow for the re-use and re-purposing of data quickly and easily, because these are the types of systems that enable us to prepare and respond to these by definition unknowable future issues.
I do what I do because I believe that technology, if employed correctly, can be a transformative force. It can act as a key enabler to improve surveillance, diagnosis, treatment monitoring and prevention. The people on the front lines managing this crisis are doing an incredible job, under intense pressure. I have to say how impressed I am with the professionalism and commitment of these public health officials—internationally and in the US. I’m proud of the work that Microsoft is doing to support them –working closely with local and international authorities to provide technologies and products to support the effort to combat this threat. One example is the work the Internet Explorer team has done to enable people to put Centers for Disease Control health tips and news updates at the top of their browsers through a new swine flu “Web slice” for Internet Explorer 8, now available at www.ieaddons.com.
We have great people. Great technology exists from Microsoft and many other companies. The threats aren’t going away. Time to build a platform to ‘really’ deal with them.