Catherine Hooper's Blog
The Mathematics of Ebola
Tuesday, 16 September 2014 20:53

In any emergency situation, it’s important to pay attention to what the experts are saying, and perhaps more importantly, how they’re saying it. On Sunday, Wired’s Maryn McKenna noted that two of the most preeminent public health officials in the US are sounding a serious alarm about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota has noted that the epidemic has “the potential to alter history as much as any plague has ever done.” Dr. Michael Besser, former acting head of the CDC, is arguing for a “military-style response” by American or United Nations doctors and armed forces.

The mathematics that are driving these messages are downright scary. In a peer-reviewed paper published last week, scientists attempted to figure out the reproductive number of the virus (the number of cases that are likely to be caused by one infected person). They determined that this outbreak has a reproductive number of at least one, sometimes two.  That means that every infected person has infected at least one other person. This is terrifying news.

Dr. Osterholm has posited two potential outcomes of the epidemic:

  • The virus spreads to large cities in other regions of the developing world
  • The virus mutates to allow for airborne transmission

The Wired article’s closing says it all:

“When one of the most senior disease detectives in the US begins talking about “plague,” knowing how emotive that word can be, and another suggests calling out the military, it is time to start paying attention.”

Hurricane Dora, 1964
Friday, 12 September 2014 23:03

The NYT is pulling digitized articles from it’s 1964 database and this week archive notes that fifty years ago, Hurricane Dora pummeled the Florida coast. Dora was one of six total storms during the ‘64 Atlantic hurricane season, which was slightly higher than average for the time period.

The article notes a very interesting fact - prior to 1995, the average number of yearly hurricanes was slightly higher than 5 per year (with 1.7 reaching the perilous category 3, 4 or 5 status).  However, since 1995, the average storms per year has upticked to eight, with 3.5 reaching dangerous levels.

It’s hard to internalize this data; the 2013 season saw little hurricane activity and Eric Holthaus of Slate notes that this year has been similar.  In fact, this was the first time in 70 years that there were no tropical storms anywhere in the world over Labor Day weekend.

Ebola Quarantine
Friday, 29 August 2014 15:12

As the World Health Organization outlines its plan for combating Ebola in Africa, the New York Times published an article detailing the situation in Liberia, where government officials have instituted a quarantine in the capital of Monrovia.

The entire slum of West Point has been placed under quarantine by the military and police.  Food is scarce and living conditions are extremely poor. Outside medical experts assert that the quarantine is bad policy; it only serves to further alienate a population that the doctors desperately need cooperation from.

Napa Earthquake
Thursday, 28 August 2014 20:19

This past Sunday, a 6.0 earthquake jolted the Napa Valley in California.  Damage reports are still being updated, but there appear to be no fatalities. This is due in large part to California’s stringent building codes and standards. Napa has not had a significant quake since 1989.

One of the more surprising facts to come out of the earthquake: only 10% of property insurance holders in California have earthquake insurance!

Experts think that the decline in earthquake coverage is due to both cost and the rarity of the events. As this past weekend showed, earthquake damage can be significant. Many vineyards and wine producers in Napa suffered significant damage.

Survival Tourism
Thursday, 21 August 2014 20:41

Outdoor Magazine posted a story about a group of tourists traveling throughout Indonesia.  Apparently, their boat sank and they were able to survive in the water for approximately 18 hours.  The group finally made it to an island...which was also home to a volcano...which was also erupting.  Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!

The story does have a happy ending, as the group was safely rescued by a passing fishing boat.

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