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Flu Pandemics: A Conversation with John M. Barry

10/15/2007 3:30 PM 32-155
Richard C. Larson, SB '65, EE, SM, '67, PhD, '69 , Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems; Sanford L. Weiner, Research Associate, Security Studies Program MIT; John M. Barry, Author

Description: In conversation with Richard Larson and Sanford Weiner, John Barry, author of The Great Influenza, discusses current understanding of the dynamics of a flu outbreak, and our general state of preparedness. Based on historical patterns, we can expect three to four pandemics per century, of varying severity. In the last century, the 1918 flu was unrivaled in its ferocity, says Barry. Estimates of deaths worldwide run from 50 to 100 million people. Since the world population then was only a third of today's, should a similar flu evolve in the 21st century, humanity would stand to lose between 175 to 300 million people.

With the emergence of the current avian flu virus, H5N1, which has a mortality rate in excess of 50%, there is reason to be concerned about another flu scourge. But, says Barry, -there's no guarantee this will be the next pandemic," or that the virus in its current form will remain as virulent, he says. It does make sense to prepare for the worst by setting up emergency protocols at all levels of government. Barry believes this will prove useful should other disasters occur, so -you're not pouring money down a rat hole if there's no disease."

In his study of the 1918 flu, which played out during World War 1, Barry learned that when officialdom played down concerns at the start of the outbreak -- denying the existence of this terrible new disease that killed some victims overnight, and left other victims blue in the face for lack of oxygen -- the outcome was inevitably worse for a community. The flu virus spread from person to person explosively, sometimes before symptoms showed up, so prevention was beside the point. In cities that jumped in quickly, -gross, blunt force public health measures" such as serious hand washing, putting masks on sick people, and containment, worked to some degree.

The most powerful barrier to the next outbreak, believes Barry, will be complete transparency of governments on an international and local scale, so scientists worldwide can share accurate data on a new virus, and the public can trust the advice of elected officials; scrupulously observed personal hygiene; and the well-timed use of -social distancing," such as school closings. With any luck, we'll get a few months' advance notice on the next one, and put the lessons of 1918 to use, he concludes.

About the Speaker(s): Richard Larson is author, co-author or editor of six books and author of over 75 scientific articles, primarily in the fields of technology-enabled education, urban service systems (esp. emergency response systems), queueing, logistics and workforce planning. His first book, Urban Police Patrol Analysis (MIT Press, 1972) was awarded the Lanchester Prize of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA).

Larson is currently President-elect of INFORMS, Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. He has served as consultant to the World Bank, Coca-Cola, Johnson Controls, EDS, United Artists Cinemas, Union Carbide Corp., and the Rand Corporation and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

From 1995 to mid 2003, Larson served as Director of MIT's CAES, Center for Advanced Educational Services, which created the Singapore MIT Alliance. He was also the creator of PIVoT -- the web-based the Physics Interactive Video Tutor; and MIT World.

John M. Barry is a prize-winning and New York Times best-selling author whose books have won more than twenty awards. In 2005 the National Academy of Sciences named The Great Influenza, a study of the 1918 pandemic, the year's outstanding book on science or medicine, and the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens gave Barry its 2005 -September Eleventh Award." Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, won the 1998 Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians for the year's best book of American history.

Barry serves on advisory boards at M.I.T's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and on a federal government Infectious Disease Board of Experts. He has advised federal, state, and World Health Organization officials on influenza, crisis management, and risk communication.

He has been keynote speaker at a White House Conference on the Mississippi Delta and he has lectured at the National War College, Harvard Business School, and in many similar venues. He is also co-originator of Riversphere, a $100 million center being developed by Tulane University which will be the first facility in the world dedicated to comprehensive river research.

Sanford L. Weiner has written about organizational change and innovation in both military and public health agencies. He is now studying incentives for risk assessment and implementation among agencies responsible for biosecurity, including the policymaking process for pandemic flu. He is also working with Harvey Sapolsky on a study of innovation in the Defense Department. He teaches such courses as "Promoting Innovation: The Dynamics of Technology and Organizations," and "Combatting Bioterrorism/ Pandemics: Implementing Policies for Biosecurity."

He has previously studied the development of the JSTARS radar plane for the Air Force, as well as policymaking on many health and environmental risks. He has examined the role of the Centers for Disease Control in both emerging infectious diseases (toxic shock syndrome, swine flu) and toxic substances (lead). He has also written an analysis of the phaseout of CFC's for the protection of the ozone layer. Before MIT he worked at the Health Policy Center at Brandeis, and the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also been a researcher at Queen Mary's College, University of London.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals

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