At this point we have all heard about the swine flu that’s starting to emerge around the world. However, one label that has been thrown around without much thought is “pandemic”. It’s an interesting development in our Twitter world where the signal to noise ratio has increased by orders of magnitude, and we tend to sensationalize and exaggerate (it’s like the old telephone game, except multiplied). Information spreads, and it’s hard to know what’s accurate, but people continue to spread it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter, but if one were to go search twitter for any variation of swine flu, they would be terribly misguided and most likely freaked out. Anyways, here’s the WHO definition for an influenza pandemic:
An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity, resulting in epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness. With the increase in global transport, as well as urbanization and overcrowded conditions, epidemics due the new influenza virus are likely to quickly take hold around the world.
Fortunately, we have not reached this stage yet (last count 20 official deaths according to the CDC, 149 according to Mexican officials, though it’s unclear why there’s such a large discrepancy). It’s important that we keep some perspective. Here’s a helpful illustration by WHO that gives some clarity as to where this rates:
My question is this – if we did not have tools like Twitter and Facebook, would the flu news spread like it did? And if not, would that necessarily be a bad thing? Or is it a good thing that we all know? On one side, folks are probably doing things like washing their hands that they should always be doing. The counter-argument is that misguided information often leads to normal folks to become hypochondriacs and burdening our health care system with unnecessary visits.
I love the way twitter has spread the flow of information, but in my opinion, there’s a a big problem with how we separate the wheat from the chaff, and I think that if a startup can attack accordingly, there’s a huge opportunity.
UPDATE: Just saw an extremely relevant XKCD cartoon, which would be funnier if not so true.