Sunday, May 20, 2012

Creating an Entirely New Science: Forecasting Illness

"Even if we had a fully credible warning of an imminent influenza pandemic, we wouldn't know what to do with it." 
----  Senior Official with U.S. Health and Human Services 

Can you imagine the reaction if an official of the National Weather Service stated, “if we knew a hurricane was coming, we wouldn’t know what to do about it?”

Fifty-five years ago this evening, I became interested in weather because of an F-5 tornado (the worst kind) that went through my neighborhood. At that time, meteorology was just starting to make the first tornado forecasts (watches) and warnings. The struggle (and it was a struggle!) to create an effective system to save lives is the topic of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. 

For all of the jokes about weather forecasting (see below), over the past decade the storm warnings we provide have become amazingly good.  Of all the people killed by tornadoes last year, more than 99% were in both a tornado watch and tornado warning before the storm arrived.

The topic of this posting and two more over as many days is to tell you about an exciting venture to forecast and warn of disease with the goal of saving lives and improving public health.

You might be surprised to learn that public health and epidemiology (the science and art of dealing with epidemics of disease) is where meteorology was about 60 years ago: Very little capability for forecasting or proactively dealing with impending epidemics of serious illnesses! 

For all we as taxpayers and as individuals spend on medical care, almost none of it goes into forecasting. So, we close schools (to take just one example) after an outbreak of measles occurs rather than closing it just before which would keep many, many more people well. It would also save lives. 

That is why I have become a member of the board of directors and an investor in a new company called Ascel Bio. Our mission is to build a new science that will forecast where and when outbreaks of disease will occur just like we forecast where tornadoes are going to occur. 

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you a little bit how it is going to work. Hint: We are going to pattern parts of it after meteorology.  

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