Thursday, June 29, 2006

"More than Half of U.S. Physicians Believe Bird Flu will Achieve Human Transmission within Four Years"

HDC Health has reported the results of a survey which they have advertised with a press release with the title used above. To be sure, this title is a little strange, since the WHO has acknowledged that there have already been instances of H2H transmission, but the actual survey question is more reasonable. Specifically they asked: "What do you think the likelihood is that Influenza A (H5N1)/avian influenza (bird flu) will gain the capacity to spread easily from person to person during the following time periods?" [24 months, 36 months, etc.]

Even the best surveys are difficult to interpret honestly, and it is close to impossible for a one-shot survey to have any genuine scientific value --- however interesting or important the questions might be. I hope that HDC continues with this survey over time. If repeated every six months (and if the sampling design is well done), this survey could teach some important lessons about the ways that the MD community forms a consensus about a public health issue.

Still, what we would like to know is the probability of a pandemic, and a survey such as this speaks to that problem only very indirectly, say as filtered through the famous "wisdom of crowds" effect. The best that we can expect from the HDC survey is just a reflection of

  • the fraction of MDs who have issue awareness of the pandemic possibility

  • and a measure of the extent to which the MD population puts its faith in the public health infrastructure.
Addendum: There is was also a February 2006 Harvard School of Public Health Survey : "While Concerned, Most Americans Do Not Expect Widespread Human Cases of Avian Flu in U.S. in the Next Year"

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