Technology's role in swine flu outbreak

David Abramson, director of Research at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The spread of the swine flu virus continues to play out in the global economy today. Companies from Google to Xerox and Dupont to Nokia have closed their Mexico offices. They've canceled employee travel to Mexico and told those who've been there recently to stay home for a couple of days.

The only thing that seems to have spread as fast as the disease itself is the news about it, both accurate information and information that is less than accurate. Dr. David Abramson's the Director of Research at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. I asked him what role technology is playing.

DAVID ABRAMSON: The alert technologies, the push technologies, the pull technologies of Twitter and e-mail and text-messaging . . . So at this point the public-health authorities have a lot of vehicles to get that message across. The CDC has about 35,000 followers on its Twitter site. And I think that is one mechanism. A lot of the states have e-mail alerts that people have signed up for, and that's pretty good. I think one of the things to be careful about, though, is if you continually get all these messages coming across, and you're bombarded by them, does that tend to raise your stress level?

Ryssdal: What about this, though? You keep getting bombarded by those messages and then you stop paying attention.

ABRAMSON: Well, that's the flip side, being desensitized to it and knowing when you should be paying attention to it.

Ryssdal: Part of that threshold, really, could be people getting nervous or upset when it's not warranted. I mean, I'm reading the news every day, I'm seeing all this stuff out there. I'm not especially concerned yet. Should I be?

ABRAMSON: I don't think so. I think at this point it is still very much a wait and see, a time to be concerned but not alarmed. And the public-health authorities have come up with new ways of surveilling the population, using new data sources as well. To be able to pick up on trends a little bit earlier. Truthfully, there will be more cases just by dent of good surveillance.

Ryssdal: And trend is really what this is all about. Because if you look at these social-networking sites, that's really what they build on. Word of mouth becomes a trend, a trend becomes sort of a phenomenon.

ABRAMSON: Exactly, if you think about it, viral marketing is built on viral infections. That's the very notion.

Ryssdal: And in a way this is, marketing is the wrong word, but what public-health professionals are worried about here is controlling the message, making sure it's good information from trusted sources.

ABRAMSON: Right. And there's only so much that you can control a message like this. In some ways, you can't suppress it. And if you were to try to suppress messages that might be erroneous, you might do more harm than good, because then people will start feeling as though there is a conspiracy theory. So better to sort of counter erroneous messages with really good, valid, reliable information.

Ryssdal: What do you about all the people who aren't on Twitter, which is frankly most of the country. And people who don't use Google trends and those sorts of things. How do you make sure that they get the same message that a lot of the more plugged-in people in this country are getting?

ABRAMSON: Right, and that's where it really gets quite interesting and challenging. Because it's not only people who aren't plugged in. It's people who speak other languages, people from other cultures, people that attend to different news sources. It's important to think about, from a public health perspective, who are people turning to? For example, here in New York City, when we looked at some of the communities in New York and asked them who they turned to for information during the SARS epidemic. In the Chinese-American community, they were turning to Internet news sources from China over the American sources. They were more trusted. So it's something that U.S. public-health officials have to pay attention to.

Ryssdal: Dr. David Abramson. He's the director of research for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Abramson, thanks so much for your time.

ABRAMSON: Thank you very much.

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