01 May 2009

The Porkalypse, Blakley's Law, and the WHO

Swine Flu has been downgraded to Influenza Type A (H1N1) for the sake of the pigs, but the WHO Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response Phase is still at 5 ("A pandemic is imminent").

The Department of Homeland Security claims that its National Threat Advisory is at "Yellow" ("Significant risk of terrorist attacks") - but DHS is just kidding. For air travellers it's still "Orange" ("High risk of terrorist attacks").

At first glance these two alarming indicators seem similar. They're not. The DHS National Threat Advisory is a public alert system. That a public alert system is indicating imminent disaster is not surprising. In fact it's inevitable. It's the nature of public alert systems to signal imminent disaster at all times. I've composed "Blakley's Law" (next time I come up with one of these I'll rename this one "Blakley's First Law") to describe the phenomenon:

"Every public alert system's status indicator rises until it reaches its disaster imminent setting and remains at that setting until it is retired from service."
It's easy to see why Blakley's law holds: if something terrible happens and the alert status didn't predict it, the keepers of the alert status will be blamed for not preparing us for the disaster. Setting the alert status to "Disaster imminent" when no disaster is likely costs the public some money and mental health, but it doesn't hurt them in other ways. On the other hand, setting the alert status to "Don't worry, be happy" just before a disaster does happen is the worst case for everyone - nobody prepares for the disaster, and the people in power lose their jobs for failing to prevent or prepare for the crisis.

This is why public alert systems are silly; for political reasons they always tell people to be afraid, but most of the time nothing bad happens so people develop distrust and contempt for the alert system and its operators over time.

It's a pity that the WHO pandemic alert and response phase indicator is being used by the media as if it were a public alert system, because the phase indicator wasn't designed as a public alert system, and what it was designed to do - and does do - is quite important.

What the pandemic alert and response phase indicator was designed to do is to alert healthcare, government, and first-responder organizations (NOT the general public) to prepare to deal with a serious disease outbreak if it occurs. Unlike DHS, which releases none of the underlying facts supporting the National Threat Advisory's current status, the WHO operates the Pandemic Phase as a fact-based system and publishes the phase criteria along with the current phase setting. The real audience for the WHO's status indicator are people who can do something to help if a pandemic breaks out, do need to know what the current situation is to make proper plans, and won't panic when they receive the information.

Unlike the media. And the public.

Influenza Type A (H1N1) may still turn out to give us a very bad season (though that does not seem very likely right now). But the biggest hazard we face from the porkalypse of 2009 seems to me to be that the media's misuse of the WHO's information may discredit the very system we will depend on when we finally do have a really deadly pandemic.