Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lessons from the German E.Coli outbreak so far.

According to ITN News in England, the E.Coli outbreak in Germany may have been traced back to beansprouts produced in Germany.

As an outsider, this news raises several points that something's gotta give:

- The majority of German people might be against anything related to nuclear energy but one of the easiest way to reduce the probability of a future outbreak (including those with wilfull intent) is probably to go for a food irradiation program. I realize this is probably not going to fly with a lot of the beansprouts customers, but adhering to guidelines is just not an active prevention policy.

- The outbreak started around May 5th. It's been a month and 18 people have died in horrible conditions. More than 2000 people are sick (and they can't be given antibiotics). In short, this was a crisis early on and some misconception about privacy is essentially harming people. While privacy is a cherished matter especially in Germany, there should be a middle ground when folks are willing to give away their cell phone records instead of relying on necessarily incomplete oral surveys. Laws and institutions ought to move forward to allow the use of data given willingly by their owners (under no duress). A democracy ought to be able to handle this type of process. At the very least, there ought to be a process in place at the European level that allows for this data exchange to happen. It seems evident that non residents phone records are data that are likely to provide the most  useful information quickly (the idea being that they were not exposed for a long time)

- Back in October I was concerned about what we were seeing on the airwaves in terms of rumor propagation, but a week ago, we heard that some Italian Scientists would have to stand trial for manslaughter in the Aquila Quake case. From the Science reporting the story:
According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Gargarella said that the seven defendants had supplied "imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information," in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake. In doing so, they "thwarted the activities designed to protect the public," the judge said.

imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information ??? welcome to my world buddy!. Similarly, Bob Park tells us about the recent cell phone controversy

Let's be open with the public. A Working Group of 31 scientists from 14 countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France from May 24–31 to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. The Working Group conducted no further study, and gathered no additional evidence. Nevertheless, based on an increased risk for glioma, a usually fatal brain cancer, they voted to classify radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as, "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Let's do a little epidemiology of our own. There are 5 billion cell phones distributed among the 7 billion people on Earth. But, as the New York Times reported this morning, brain cancer rates in the US have been declining for two decades. Does this tell us that cell phones prevent brain cancer? Alas, no. The increase in cell phone use only started one decade ago. It tells us is that epidemiology alone is a lousy guide for making policy. There is far too much "noise" in the data. So far, only photons more energetic than visible light have been shown to create mutant strands of DNA. "Maybe it's a multi-photon process," I'm told. A two-photon process is possible, even a three-photon process, but it would take 1 million microwave photons working in tandem to overcome the work function. So find a mechanism. But please don't inflict more case-control epidemiology on a paranoid public..."
All the cases where technical knowledge is involved, information is initially scant and/or  the science does not exist, are ripe to produces a vacuum in the 24/7 news cycle quickly filled by a whole slew of so-called experts. These experts (most of them have good intentions) have no qualms producing all kinds of scapegoats. For instance, in Germany, incomplete information led to the boycott of cucumbers from Spain leading to huge financial losses there (the E.coli found on cucumbers was eventually found to not be the same strain as the one found in the outbreak). In that theater play called the news, epidemiology as currently performed cannot be an answer. It is not an answer in the cell phone issue as there is no science explaining the process and more importantly statistics doesn't do well in estimating small effects. In order to avoid all these annoying side effects in our hyper-aware and rumor prone societies, shouldn't we push more efforts in evaluating noise and/or applying more machine learning techniques? Small advanced warning signs may be at the heart of figuring out if your outbreak is going to be a major pandemic or if specific types of tremors are going to lead to a major earthquake. Can these problems be identified quickly through some network pattern matching or can we perform better Signal Extraction from Ambient Noise Cross-correlations ? While these examples fit the earthquake problematic, could these techniques be applied to disease outbreaks ? Where do we get more data than just the interviews of sick patients ?

1 comment:

Peter said...

Igor, I'm curious, I haven't heard of anyone even asking for (or denying) the analysis of cell phone data. Do you have a reference? Google is not helping me because EHEC collides with the "cell phones = brain cancer" story...