Friday, September 5, 2014

This Mathematical Model from 2006 Shows How Ebola Could Wipe Us Out


The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the worst in history, and the death toll just surpassed 1,900. Previous WHO estimates indicated that the outbreak would end mid-fall, but the situation is quickly spiraling out of control and into a sea of unknowns.

The “Ebola epidemic is the largest, and most severe, and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease,” World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan said in a special briefing yesterday. “No one, even outbreak responders, [has] ever seen anything like it.”

Yaneer Bar-Yam, the complex systems analyst whose model accurately predicted the global unrest that led to the Arab Spring, is also worried about the patterns he sees in the disease's advance. Models he designed for the New England Complex Systems Institute back in 2006 show that Ebola could rapidly spread, and, in a worse case scenario, even cause an extinction event, if enough infected people make it through an international airport.

“What happened was that we were modelling the dynamics of the evolution of diseases—of pathogens—and we showed that if you just add a very small amount of long-range transportation, the diseases escape their local context and eventually drive everything to extinction,” Bar-Yam told Motherboard. “They drive their hosts to extinction.”

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