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Larry Brilliant's call for pandemic "Early Warning System"
August 30, 2006 12:24 AM   Subscribe

Doctor Larry Brilliant (mentioned before) spoke at TED this year, calling himself the "luckiest man in the world." He played witness to the last case of Smallpox, and played a significant role in making it the last case. Inspiring/terrifying video here, long, with some graphic images of smallpox.

Back in 1974, Brilliant's technique for early detection in India was to take graphic photos door to door, asking if anyone inside looks like this. Now, as head of Google's philanthropic efforts, he's advocating systems for "early detection, early response." Unsurprisingly, Google, etc, are an important piece of that system: can we detect what's happening before it can spread?

One of the first responses to Brilliant is up already, a means for doctors to immediately text epidemiological information straight into a global spatial database. It's a rough and promising start, and its fascinating that it's coming from the bottom up, instead of NGOs like the Red Cross.
posted by cloudscratcher (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Those Brilliants. What will they do next? (I kvell).
posted by Dan Brilliant at 1:21 AM on August 30, 2006


Fantastic...what a great idea. This could be used in so many ways!
posted by livinginmonrovia at 1:22 AM on August 30, 2006


His name sounds like the alter-ego of a super hero.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:51 AM on August 30, 2006


Hey Dan... Brilliant of the Brilliants?
posted by cloudscratcher at 2:20 AM on August 30, 2006


Larry : "Hey, I eradicated smallpox!"

The World : "Brilliant!!" *snigger*
posted by fullerine at 2:53 AM on August 30, 2006


Not to be dismissive, because they are actually doing the work, but isn't this standard information theory stuff, with inputs pushed out to the edge?

As the cost of communications is reduced, information is expected to be more common. More info can mean more coherent analysis.

Reduced cost of information transfer is supposed to lead to more info from the edges, and then analysis of said info becomes the issue, with results feeding back to sources, reinforcing collection of data at the edge.

Good on Google for doing this, but isn't this pretty standard application of theory?
posted by dglynn at 3:01 AM on August 30, 2006


Hey Dan... Brilliant of the Brilliants?

Yes, I'm a Brilliant, though no relation of Larry to my knowledge. There are more of us than you might imagine - look in a phone book for London or New York.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 3:22 AM on August 30, 2006


Hey dglynn -- Google's not doing this -- it's just something Brilliant suggested. The link goes to someone at UCSB who's gone and started something.

It may be standard application of theory -- I don't know much about that -- but it's a brand new application as far as I know. I'm not familiar with the history of epidemiology, but it's unlikely, in the history of humans, that it was ever possible to engage the problem like this.
posted by cloudscratcher at 3:43 AM on August 30, 2006


I sure as hell hope we've seen the last case of smallpox, but thanks to USAMRIID and Biopreparat, I know there's some virus being kept on ice somewhere to play with. If that stuff ever got out among the Great Unwashed, people might find out the hard way that their childhood vaccinations didn't confer lifetime immunity.

I can think of a lot of other ways I'd prefer to die than smallpox -- having my entire skin slough off while I'm feverish and in utter agony makes something mundane like inoperable cancer sound like a picnic by comparision.
posted by pax digita at 4:35 AM on August 30, 2006


Dr Brilliant - He's like the exact opposite of Dr Evil.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:31 AM on August 30, 2006


I look forwards to the future accomplishments of all the Brilliant children.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:33 AM on August 30, 2006


Using the internet as a vehicle for a global epidemiological reporting system is a great idea, whether Google does it or not. This fact hasn't escaped the health community, and there are lots of examples from the city and county level on on up. The International Society for Infectious diseases has "ProMed." The Public Health Agency of Canada has the Global Public Intelligence Network, which is more general surveillance, but common-sense and useful. The US Centers for Disease Control runs the web-based Early Aberration Reporting System and Epi-X, a "secure communications network for public health professionals."

I am not an epidemiologist, but I know that having a reporting system does necessarily mean that the reports are immediately useful. What's needed is a standardized format, with standardized terminology, available in every language, where only official personnel can input case reports. These measures would enable automated pattern detection that could focus attention on potential problems-- "early detection, early response," in the words of Dr. Brilliant.
posted by zennie at 8:39 AM on August 30, 2006


The saddest thing about smallpox, as noted by Pax Digita, is that it's still around. We actually won a battle against a virus on a worldwide scale. It's gone. None need ever to suffer the horrors of Variola major again.

Except that we won't get rid of it. We keep it in cold boxes where it patiently waits for it's chance to ravage humanity again.

And we work at making it deadlier.

The competition for being the dominant species on Earth is between H. Sapiens and the viruses. It's anyone's guess who will win. With humans working to 'improve' the viruses, I'm not betting on us.

See The Demon in the Freezer for a grim summary.
posted by bitmage at 9:09 AM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure the bacteria have us outmaneuvered us on all fronts, bitmage. We're just their delivery vehicles; they were here first, they'll be here long after we're gone, whether they (or viruses) off us or not. We're just a blip on their radar.

But kudos to Dr. Brilliant for extending our time any way he can...
posted by emjaybee at 9:21 AM on August 30, 2006


Not to be dismissive, because they are actually doing the work, but isn't this standard information theory stuff, with inputs pushed out to the edge?

Yes, but it's only been in the last ten years that the technology has caught up to the point that it's possible in the Third World -- and the public health community has realized they could do it.

I heard Bill Foege give a talk this year (actually, I was recording it for a podcast) where he mentioned that a group (WHO?) was looking into using retinal scans and a centralized database to manage their vaccination program. They could scan the retina of a child and automatically know which shots he/she has had no matter where they received them. Scary in terms of privacy issues... but a major boon to communicable disease eradication.

Foege's talk was about the idea that small changes using technology could greatly improve global health. I can give people the link if they're interested (since me mentioning this is borderline Pepsi Blue).
posted by dw at 10:39 AM on August 30, 2006


I'm pretty sure the bacteria have us outmaneuvered us on all fronts, bitmage. We're just their delivery vehicles; they were here first, they'll be here long after we're gone, whether they (or viruses) off us or not. We're just a blip on their radar.

In a way, we are bacteria.
posted by zennie at 10:52 AM on August 30, 2006


Cousin Dr. Larry Brilliant Appleton?


posted by phylum sinter at 11:16 AM on August 30, 2006


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