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Censorship Doesn’t Just Stifle Speech—It Can Spread Disease
August 24, 2013 7:20 AM   Subscribe

The Saudi Arabian government has been tight-lipped about the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a disease first discovered in 2012 that has "killed more than half of those who contracted it", "responding slowly to requests for information and preventing outside researchers from publishing their findings about the syndrome.

"After SARS, no one thought that it would happen again. In 2005 the 194 nations that vote in WHO‘s governing body promised not to conceal outbreaks.

And beyond that promise, public-health researchers have believed that Internet chatter—patterns of online discussion about disease—would undercut any attempts at secrecy. But they’ve been disappointed to see that their web-scraping tools have picked up remarkably little from the Middle East: While Saudi residents certainly use the Internet, what they can access is stifled, and what they are willing to say appears muted."

"While we wait to see the full extent of MERS, the one thing the world can do is to relearn the lesson of SARS: Just as diseases will always cross borders, governments will always try to evade blame. That problem can’t be solved with better devices or through a more sophisticated public-health dragnet.

The solution lies in something public health has failed to accomplish despite centuries of trying: persuading governments that transparency needs to trump concerns about their own reputations. Information can outrun our deadly new diseases, but only if it’s allowed to spread."
posted by jeffburdges (13 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

We'd another post about H7N9 two months ago with more links about the disease itself, but this one focusses on how censorship impacts epidemiologists' ability to detect diseases.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:35 AM on August 24, 2013

Also we should clarify that "killed more than half of those who contracted it" means it killed 49 people out of the 103 confirmed infections. So, while it's deadly, they've presumably caught this one early, given that Saudi Arabia just started cooperating in June and "the virus has not shown to spread in a sustained way in communities".
posted by jeffburdges at 7:45 AM on August 24, 2013

I'm sure they trust the US, given that we've used disease surveillance as a front for covert operations.
posted by Renoroc at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I wish they hadn't used a vaccination campaign that way.
posted by Sleeper at 8:52 AM on August 24, 2013

I basically came in to say the same thing. From the NY Times:

Anger ... over American foreign policy has led to a disastrous setback for the global effort against polio. In December, nine vaccinators were shot dead here, and two Taliban commanders banned vaccination in their areas, saying the vaccinations could resume only if drone strikes ended. In January, 10 vaccinators were killed in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated north.

Since then, there have been isolated killings — of an activist, a police officer and vaccinators — each of which has temporarily halted the campaign.

posted by nevercalm at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

We sentence Manning to 35 years largely over imagined harm to U.S. assets, but really over embarrassing the government. Yet, CIA operative who cause actual but similarly indirect deaths medical personnel get promoted.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:55 AM on August 24, 2013 [8 favorites]

Time to write a spiritual successor to World War Z set in Saudi during the Arab Spring.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:12 PM on August 24, 2013

means it killed 49 people out of the 103 confirmed infections

Contrary to public/media reaction, this is actually a good thing. As any readers of the Ebola literature should know, this suggests that the virus will actually burn itself out quickly and can more easily succumb to quarantine. It's slow-acting, low-killing viruses like a typical flu strain that can be much more dangerous in global pandemic terms.

That said, it's unbelievably appalling that SA would engage in this stonewalling. Combine that with China on SARS and I think we have to grimly expect it to happen again.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 PM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

CIA operative who cause actual but similarly indirect deaths medical personnel get promoted.

They're not really "U.S. assets". They're helping to keep 'those people' alive. Don't you realize we're at a never-ending war here?
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:56 PM on August 24, 2013

> It's slow-acting, low-killing viruses like a typical flu strain that can be much more dangerous in global pandemic terms.

Isn't it the slowness that makes a disease more dangerous? A slow, but deadly one would be able to travel, but kill a larger portion of the population. e.g. 1918 flu vs. 2009 swine flu.

An airborne disease that progresses like rabies should do it, no?
posted by morganw at 7:25 PM on August 24, 2013

I think the main thing that makes diseases dangerous is the transmission risk. (IE: the probability that contact with an infected person will spread the disease to susceptible individuals.) If a disease has a high transmission risk, then it will spread very quickly. If I'm understanding this correctly, it sounds like the transmission risk of MERS isn't scary high. You have to be in close contact with someone to catch it, so quarantines should be an effective way to keep it contained.

But quarantines don't work if you have no idea the disease exists in the first place.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:41 AM on August 25, 2013

Holy tombs Batman.
posted by clavdivs at 12:09 PM on August 25, 2013

MERS Cases Continue As Hajj Season Approaches In Saudi Arabia
posted by homunculus at 10:14 AM on September 5, 2013

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