The Rumsfeld School of Planning for Bird Flu

With the turn of the calendar there is always both hope and anxiety about the year ahead. This is nice because it gives pundits and bloggers something to write about. Just before Christmas The Times of London published\ a "leading article" (unsigned), Black Swans and Bird Flu, which was about the anxiety part, assessing the threats, and planning for them in advance:

Living at risk, it has been said, is akin to jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down. Not everyone would be content with such a strategy. Some would not venture close to the edge, even if that meant missing a discovery or a thrill. Others would insist on constructing wings in advance and keeping them nearby just in case they might be needed at short notice.

Sir David King, the Government's outgoing Chief Scientist, is clearly and understandably in the second category.


[His major concerns are climate change and] the possibility of a global flu pandemic -- triggered by the emergence of a strain of bird flu which could easily be transferred to humans. This, he gives warning, would spread rapidly from South-East Asia on to Europe.


Despite this chilling thought, his view of risk remains optimistic. Sir David believes in what Donald Rumsfeld famously labelled "known unknowns". Climate change and a bird flu pandemic are dangers that officials appreciate could happen. The policy argument consists of how large a risk they constitute and what should be done and at how much cost to alleviate the chance of their occurring.(TimesOnline).

Fine, the editorial says, but what about the alternative point of view? History is not made by the "known unknowns" but by the "unknown unknowns," the bolts out of the blue like 9-11 that were unforeseen but "change everything." These unimagined "black swans" are the leit motif of history, not the imaginable things we are merely uncertain about. They are, by definition, impossible to predict. Maybe there will be a pandemic, but history teaches us it isn't likely to be the one we expect.

The TImes has a sensible take on this, as far as it goes:

The difficulty with the black swan concept is that it can acquire nihilistic characteristics. It can be taken to mean that climate change and bird flu should not be addressed because something else will arrive in their place. Risk becomes an Act of God rather than an area of life in which calculations of probability have any utility. This is too sweeping. Unknown unknowns may be more devastating than known unknowns because of their shock value. This cannot mean that known unknowns have never manifested themselves or been prevented because they were anticipated. Would we be comfortable if Sir David revealed that he had not bothered to commission antiviral drugs because they might not be effective against the pandemic that emerges? Those who leap off cliffs would be wise, as far as possible, to have those home-made wings at close quarters.

There is, I think, more that can be said. Instead of preparing for an imagined Big Bad Wolf, why not do as the wisest of the Three Little Pigs did, build a strong brick house that will protect us against the Wolf, the Wolf's cousins and the worst of bad weather as well. That means -- yes, I'm going to say it again -- strengthening our public health and social service infrastructures so that we have more resilient, more robust communities. Why try to predict the exact catastrophe and prepare for it by depending upon catastrophe-specific measures, like an antiviral that works for flu but not for other diseases or natural events? Why not a stronger, tidy little brick house instead of the Don Rumsfeld Memorial Charnel House in Iraq with money we could have used to keep Americans safer at home. We're fighting them there so we can't fight disease here?

We have talked quite a bit here about how much we don't know about influenza and how so much of what we thought we knew has turned out wrong. We are, in effect, predicating much of our preventive measure strategy on a pretty shaky knowledge base, Rumsfeld's "known unknowns."

Maybe now that Rumsfeld and his insane boss have started the United States on a long period of decline, he could come back for one last Black Swan Song and run the influenza preparedness program. Then he could take full charge of the only category he didn't mention but at which he was a master: the things we think we know but are wrong about.

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Priorities Revere, Priorities.

As I posited 6 months ago, Osama would try to topple Pakistan. Here we are. You might be right about the build up of health care here. If they got the bomb we would surely need it. Either directly for us or for the troops that survived the blast.

Osama is trying to do what the Russians couldnt. Take control of the Strait of Hormuz. Once there they have the economies of the world in their control by intimidation. We couldnt leave our troops or ships there to protect the fleets of the world carrying all that heating oil, LNG and other products. We would be relegated to moving our ships out to Diego Garcia while we "negotiate" for our oil pricing.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 04 Jan 2008 #permalink

Revere I agree with you completely.

What you need is a public health system and what we all need is surge capacity in health, electrical grid, water, fuel and food systems...

...and the amount of investment should not be an issue for this has become a national security problem...if our supposed enemies do it and we don't then we are at a strategic disadvantage no matter how big an armed forces we have...and Randolph would probably tell us that supply lines and surge capacity has brought down the greatest armies in history.'

For the skeptics...I would ask the following.

We have had ten pandemics in the past three hundred years...some of least three have approached the virulence of 1918...and we have had three pandemics in the last 90 years.

Are you saying that we can afford to ignore history and that we will never again have a pandemic.

Are you saying that because we handled a mild pandemic in 1957 and an 'outlier' very mild pandemic in 1968 that we could do the same now...even with our just in time supply system and fragile fuel supply situation?

If so, it wouldn't be the first time that our civilization has been brought to its knees by instinctual my opinion of course.

ps. as far as the unknown seems to me that there were forewarnings given for the Asian Tsunami, Pearl Harbour and Katrina and 911 etc. etc. etc....

...therefore, by definition, these were not 'unknown unknowns'.

That means -- yes, I'm going to say it again -- strengthening our public health and social service infrastructures so that we have more resilient, more robust communities. Why try to predict the exact catastrophe and prepare for it by depending upon catastrophe-specific measures, like an antiviral that works for flu but not for other diseases or natural events?

Your post makes perfect sense! I love the, Framing Science blog". Maybe you could talk with them about ways to further this very important cause you are so passionate about. Positive results would certainly bring the literal appreciation of millions of Americans! Including me!
Dave Briggs :~)

Excellent and rational post revere.

I've always believed that the "strong house" approach is the right approach. To focus only on H5N1 and to proclaim that it WILL become a human panflu is delusional and it certainly won't motivate rational people to prepare for any unknowns, whether they be known or unknown.


A sensible approach.

I have said so many times "don't try to catch a falling knife". Don't waste time and exhaust yourself staring at a possible threat. Instead, work on reducing the vulnerability.

Planning for bird flu:
H5N1 avian flu: Spread by drinking water

There is a widespread link between avian flu and water, e.g. in Egypt to the Nile delta or Indonesia to residential districts of less prosperous humans with backyard flocks and without central water supply as in Vietnam: See also the WHO webside: and abstract in English �Influenza: Initial introduction of influenza viruses to the population via abiotic water supply versus biotic human viral respirated droplet shedding� and… �Transmission of influenza A in human beings�.
Avian flu infections may increase in consequence to increase of virus circulation. Transmission of avian flu by direct contact to infected poultry is an unproved assumption from the WHO. Infected poultry can everywhere contaminate the drinking water. All humans have contact to drinking water. Special in cases of decentral water supplies this pathway can explain small cluster in households. In hot climates/tropics the flood-related influenza is typical after extreme weather and natural after floods. Virulence of Influenza virus depends on temperature and time. If young and fresh H5N1 contaminated water from low local wells, cisterns, tanks, rain barrels or rice fields is used for water supply water temperature for infection may be higher (24�C: virulence of influenza viruses 2 days) as in temperate climates with older water from central water supplies (7�C: virulence of influenza viruses 14 days).
Human to human and contact transmission of influenza occur - but are overvalued immense. In the course of influenza epidemics in Germany, recognized cluster are rare, accounting for just 9 percent of cases in the 2005 season. In temperate climates the lethal H5N1 virus will be transferred to humans via cold drinking water, as with the birds in February and March 2006, strong seasonal at the time when drinking water has its temperature minimum.
Recent research must cause concern: So far the virus has had to reach the bronchi and the lungs to infect humans. Now it infects the upper respiratory system (the mucous membranes of the throat such as through drinking, and the mucous membranes of the nose and probably also the conjunctival of the eyes as well as the eardrum, such as through showering). In a few cases (Vietnam, Thailand) the stomach and intestines were stricken by the H5N1 virus but not the bronchi and the lungs. The virus might been orally taken, such as through drinking contaminated water.
The performance to eliminate viruses from the drinking water processing plants in Germany regularly does not meet the requirements of the WHO and the USA/USEPA. Conventional disinfection procedures are poor, because microorganisms in the water are not in suspension, but embedded in particles. Even ground water used for drinking water is not free from viruses.
In temperate climates strong seasonal waterborne infections like the norovirus, rotavirus, salmonella, campylobacter and - differing from the usual dogma - influenza are mainly triggered by drinking water, dependent on the water's temperature (in Germany it is at a minimum in February and March and at a maximum in August). There is no evidence that influenza primarily is transmitted by saliva droplets. In temperate climates the strong interdependence between influenza infections and environmental temperatures can't be explained by the primary biotic transmission by saliva droplets from human to human at temperatures of 37.5�C. There must be an abiotic vehicle like cold drinking water. There is no other appropriate abiotic vehicle. In Germany about 98 percent of inhabitants have a central public water supply with older and better protected water. Therefore, in Germany cold water is decisive to the virulence of viruses.
In hot climates and the tropics flood-related influenza is typical after extreme weather and natural after floods. The virulence of the influenza virus depends on temperature and time. If young and fresh H5N1 contaminated water from low local wells, cisterns, tanks, rain barrels or rice fields is used for water supply the water temperature for infection may be higher (at 24�C the virulence of influenza viruses amount to 2 days) as in temperate climates (for �older� water from central water supplies cold water is decisive to virulence of viruses: at 7�C the virulence of influenza viruses amount to 14 days).

Dipl.-Ing. Wilfried Soddemann - Free science journalist - - - Epidemiological Analysis:

9-11 was certainly a known unknown. (Bojinka - an AQ plot from 1995, The Lone Gunmen by Fox, Executive Order by Clancy)

The known unknowns have been exploited by leaders for over 100 years to exploit the citizens . Todays technology gives way to large numbers of known unknowns.

Disease - (Health Control - funny how Rumsfelds company in which he still had shares benefitted from H5N1, same as how Cheneys Halliburton benefitted from the GWOT, and Paulsons Goldman Sachs benefitted from the sub-prime bubble being collapsed)…

Famine-(Food Control using Agro-Business Cartel and GM seeds)…

Eugenics (Population Control)

War and Genocide (Population Reduction)

All part of the New World Order.