Using an app to simulate a flu pandemic – watch BBC4’s Contagion

Tonight there is a programme that sounds worth watching on BBC4 called Contagion.

The programme simulates what would happen in a flu pandemic and predicts >800K deaths in the UK.

I’ve long been fascinated by infectious diseases every since I read the Hot Zone by Richard Preston about Ebola. It introduced me to the concept of patient Zero and diseases spreading by touch or droplets.

In the contagion documentary they created an app that people had on their phone. A single person acted as patient zero and wandered around meeting people some of whom had the app, these people were then infected and could spread it on to others. It appears this accurately simulated true viral spread and showed just how quickly things can spread.

Of course this isn’t the first time that something like this has been shown. See this Daily Mail article on a website that was setup as part of a marketing for a online game.

What is weirder is that viruses can infect simulations as well as be simulated in simulations (love that sentence) Both my sons play WOW the MMROPG and that like other online games had a in game virus outbreak called the corrupted blood incident. Essentially an in game illness that was meant to temporally weaken a player broke out and started to infect everyone and kill weaker characters. Allegedly epidemiologists have studied it and some of the techniques players used and failed to prevent infection. This perhaps shows the law of unintended consequences and might make a good case for not releasing GM crops into the wild!

On a more serious note I wonder can we harness this power? Can we use the viral nature of the internet to spread good health advice? Can we build into online games things that promote health? For example getting super powers from eating vegetables not just blood and wearing gloves to prevent blood borne diseases when stabbing people?

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