We seem to be suffering from a global amnesia. Ask any passerby – as we did – “What was the most catastrophic cause of death in the last 100 years?” and you receive the usual suspects: WWII, perhaps WWI. There are also some less obvious replies: Chernobyl, the Boxing Day Tsunami, Hiroshima. Very, very rarely will anyone say Spanish Flu, and yet that particular pandemic killed up to 100 million people.
There have been three others since then. Even more astonishing is that the UK Government considers another flu pandemic so dangerous to our society that it tops the list of the newly updated National Risk Register for Civil Emergencies.
This free app is part of the biggest experiment of its kind, a citizen science experiment that aims to spread a virtual pandemic – an outbreak of a simulated infectious disease around the entire country.
That may sound like an odd thing to want to do but, if successful, the BBC Pandemic could help save lives when – not if – the next lethal pandemic spreads across the world.
With international air travel at over four billion flights last year alone, stopping a flu pandemic taking hold is pretty much impossible nowadays, but the BBC Pandemic App will help a team of mathematical epidemiologists from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predict how a virus could spread across the UK and, crucially, test what might be done to slow it down.
The problem with pandemic flu viruses is that they emerge unannounced, unlike the seasonal flu we experience every winter.
Seasonal flu can be deadly too and the warning signs from Australia show that this year could be a bad one, but at least we get a heads-up from our southern neighbours several months in advance.
This gives the critical time necessary to get a vaccine tailor-made and manufactured in sufficient volume to vaccinate key workers and those most vulnerable.
But, every now and again, the animal world creates a strain of the flu virus that humans have never seen before – we have little protection from our immune system, or enough time to make a vaccine before the virus has started to spread.
The 2009 pandemic was commonly known as swine flu because the human virus contained genes from a pig flu virus. The devastating Spanish Flu pandemic was caused by a virus that seems to have emerged from birds.
Planning for another pandemic is the best defence we have until vaccine technology manages to catch up. And that’s where everyone in the UK can help, by downloading the BBC Pandemic App.
Once downloaded, users will be asked basic questions like age and employment status.