Learning from Disaster: Five Scenarios to Make You Think

Anthrax, botulism, pandemic influenza, smallpox, nuclear attack. Some of the world’s biggest disasters, so how should they be handled?

Lawrence Wein, the Jeffrey S. Skoll Professor of Management Science at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has studied these issues over the last 10 years. According to a Stanford article, Wein applied complex mathematical equations to these disaster scenarios, calculating the odds of survival in each case. He has “presented his work at the White House and helped influence U.S. policy,” according to Stanford.

Anthrax: The strange white powder that arrived in letters – pretty scary. The problem with anthrax is that it’s extremely fatal (without medical help it’s 90-95 percent) and it also doesn’t expire quickly. According to Stanford, it can stay viable for decades. It has been weaponized by several countries and an aerosol release of 100 kilograms could kill as many as three million people. So what does Wein’s research show? Here’s an excerpt from the Stanford article:

“Wein created a model to examine the hypothetical release of 1 kilogram of anthrax in a metropolitan area the size of New York City. His calculations showed that each day without antibiotics, this city would lose 10,000 people. And even with an efficient response, this city would lose more than 100,000 people. His research showed intervention must begin after the first case, the government must rapidly distribute antibiotics, and hospitals and health clinics must be prepared to handle a surge in capacity. But how to distribute drugs efficiently and effectively? In 2008, Wein proposed in the New York Times that postal workers could do so. In 2009, the government and postal unions agreed to hand-deliver antibiotics in large cities in case of an attack.”

Botulism (Botulinum Toxin): Botulism is the name for the poisoning that happens from exposure to the toxin secreted by the bacterium C. botulinum. It is one of the most lethal toxins known to humans, Stanford reports, with just one millionth of a gram being potentially fatal. It can easily be put into fruit juice, milk and even grains.

Here’s what Wein looked at.

“Wein analyzed the model of milk distribution (and weaknesses in the supply chain) in the United States to find that 4 grams slipped into a milk production facility could cause serious harm — even death — to 400,000 people. He also determined that industry investments costing the public about two pennies more per gallon of milk would prevent that scenario. He suggested deterrents such as locks on tanks, a 15-minute toxin test on milk before it gets released into silos, and an intensified heat pasteurization process. After 9/11, the government scaled up that pasteurization process, which may mean this toxin is less of a threat today.

Pandemic Influenza: Remember those history lessons about people dying from the flu? Well it still kills about 36,000 people annually in the U.S., according to CDC stats reported in the Stanford article. A pandemic of influenza would be challenging. In fact, Wein told Stanford that a pandemic outbreak of it would dwarf all these other disaster scenarios. At the beginning of an outbreak, there might not be a vaccine or prophylactic antivirals, Stanford says, and hospitals can’t really do much.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Wein studied the routes of influenza transmission to determine the most common is aerosol. That means hand washing, a favorite prevention technique, would do little, but proper ventilation could help. His research found by far the best way to prevent transmission was face protection, particularly N95 respirators. These masks filter at least 95% of airborne particles and are commonly worn, for example, by construction workers. Surgical masks are also effective, though slightly less so.”

Smallpox: Although smallpox is no longer a common disease (it’s been eradicated since the 1970s), according to Stanford, some countries have worked to turn it into a weapon. And it would be a pretty effective one, if your goal was to kill vast numbers of people – it is highly contagious and killed around 500 million people in the 20th century, Stanford reports.

Here’s what Wein found in his research:

“Wein created models of traced vaccination response — that is, treating only those infected and those who might have come in contact with the infected — and mass vaccination to find traced vaccination could lead to 100,000 to 1 million more deaths. He and his coauthor presented their findings at the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had previously advocated a traced response. Today the government has 300 million vaccines at the ready.”

Nuclear Attack: How could we survive a nuclear attack? Here’s what Wein’s research showed.

“Wein modeled the impact of a 10-kiloton nuclear device, slightly smaller than the bomb that the United States unleashed on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, that hypothetically explodes in Washington, D.C., on a weekday morning. Immediately, about 80,000 people would die. If the city attempted to evacuate, he found, about 180,000 people would be killed overall. If instead people took shelter for 12 to 24 hours, about 120,000 people would die in total. He recommended the government update its recommendation from selective evacuation to sheltering, which it did.”


For more information and the source of all excerpts in this article, see the source here: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/lawrence-wein-five-disaster-scenarios-what-we-learn-them/?utm_source=stanford-business&utm_medium=email-alumni&utm_campaign=issue-48-10-17-2014