When Transparency Is A Matter Of Life And Death

from the spread-the-word-not-the-disease dept

Against a background of the leaks about NSA spying, transparency — or lack of it — is a hot topic at the moment. But there are situations where it can be even more important than just a matter of enhancing confidence in government actions and acting as a check on them, as this Wired story about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) makes clear:

The virus is new, recorded in humans for the first time in mid-2012. It is dire, having killed more than half of those who contracted it. And it is mysterious, far more so than it should be — because Saudi Arabia, where the majority of cases have clustered, has been tight-lipped about the disease’s spread, responding slowly to requests for information and preventing outside researchers from publishing their findings about the syndrome.

In fact, it’s even worse than that. Researchers had hoped one new technique would allow them to track nascent epidemics and pandemics in the face of government reticence to admit there is a problem is to monitor casual online discussions about outbreaks of illness. But even that’s failing here:

public-health researchers have believed that Internet chatter — patterns of online discussion about disease — would undercut any attempts at secrecy. But they’ve been disappointed to see that their web-scraping tools have picked up remarkably little from the Middle East: While Saudi residents certainly use the Internet, what they can access is stifled, and what they are willing to say appears muted.

That’s a clear demonstration of how lack of transparency, when coupled with pervasive censorship and knock-on self-censorship, can have much wider implications than simply blocking the free flow of information.

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Comments on “When Transparency Is A Matter Of Life And Death”

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Anonymous Coward says:

NSA surveillance is proactive, while this research is reactive. It is not the same kind situation and therefore not the same kind of transparency requirement.

While it is completely insane from the Saudi authorities to deny a little more transparency it hardly translates to NSAs surveillance.

In viral research, universities and their open format prevails.
In surveillance techniques the NSA prevails.

Letting NSA conduct virus research would be ridiculous, but so would letting universities conducting the NSA-type surveillance.

out_of_the_blue says:

Bubonic plague outbreak feared in Asia after teenager ate infected barbecued marmot...


That’s transparent enough, and a known, definite, far more likely danger than MERS which doesn’t have enough data yet: last I saw (due to lack of transparency) was only a few dozen cases of MERS, which could yet be mis-diagnosed and the whole thing imagined.

Point is this item is a STRETCH for “transparency”. AC #1 already nailed the bogus NSA comparison.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Bubonic plague outbreak feared in Asia after teenager ate infected barbecued marmot...

Bubonic plague is well understood and easily treatable with antibiotics.



Certainly it killed many people during the middle ages…but that was due to a combination of factors which no longer apply to our modern world.

MERS, however, is a completely different beast. In case your still believe that they somehow imagined this disease, see:


and this (SARS is a related disease caused by another coronavirus):


MERS is a new virus, which scientists are still trying to understand. Prognosis doesn’t look too good, with a current total fatality rate of 48% (note that even in developed countries, namely France and the UK, the death rate is quite high, see the MERS article). There’s no actual cure (note that, being a virus, antibiotics don’t work) or vaccine. You just ride it out and hope the patient doesn’t die.

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