A viral infection with serious public health consequences occurred in Canada on January with little publicity:
Hundreds of computers at the Public Health Agency of Canada fell victim to a “worm,” a bit of malicious software that nearly brought operations to a halt.
The trouble began Monday, Jan. 15, 2007, when a few computer users at the agency and at Health Canada reported getting error messages. The worm eventually knocked out 1,308 or 80 per cent of work stations in three cities and took more than a month to eradicate, say newly released documents.
The attack is estimated to have cost the agency up to $1.5-million, including down time for employees made idle by their ailing work stations. More than 50 technicians and other experts struggled for weeks to contain the damage.
A Nov. 26, 2007, post-mortem report on the emergency warned that “the total cost of this incident could have been higher if this event occurred during a time of public health crisis, including loss of life.” (Canadian Press; link now behind subscription firewall)
Technically a computer virus and a computer worm are different. From the computer hygiene point of view, however, they both represent a propagating piece of computer malware that does damage to the community. Public health, like many other community services, has become increasingly dependent on digital communication systems. Few if any public health authorities have their own cyber security expertise and with budgets getting tighter and tighter it isn’t likely many will acquire it.
This just piles one more vulnerability onto public health at a time when it is tottering towards collapse, or at best, a vegetative existence.
NB to taxpayers: you get what you pay for.