Originally published in MedPage Today
by Mike Himowitz
When I read Michael Smith’s account of European politicians taking WHO to the woodshed for allegedly conspiring with vaccine makers to overinflate the danger from H1N1 pandemic flu, I was reminded of a similar — and equally silly — argument that occurred exactly a decade ago.
In the early days of 2000, you may recall, skeptics around the world were crowing over the fact that nothing awful happened on the stroke of Y2K, despite fears that the computer systems running everything important in the world — from banks to dialysis machines to airlines — would fail catastrophically.
The culprit 10 years ago was a shortcut many programmers had taken during the decades before computer memory and storage became cheap commodities. Instead of using four digits to record the year (as in 1985), they used only two digits (85).
As long we were still in the 20th century (the 1900s), two-digit date arithmetic would work just fine. But when the year clicked over to “00” and date arithmetic started generating negative numbers, computer experts predicted there would be hell to pay.
In fact, there was hell to pay — but we paid it ahead of time. By “we,” I refer to the collective efforts of thousands of programmers and other IT professionals, backed by big bucks from their employers and the government — people who stressed themselves out for years to repair old code or replace old computers before the stoke of midnight 2000.
As Y2K rolled in, there were plenty of computer failures, but thanks to the hard work of the legions who prepared for it, few of them were consequential. Meanwhile, those who had predicted the worst were accused of crying “Wolf,” or worse, being in cahoots with computer and software companies who inflated Y2K fears to make a quick buck selling new equipment.
Not being omniscient, I can’t say what would have happened around the world if we hadn’t prepared for Y2K. I do know that I was working for a newspaper and was more familiar than most with its computer systems. And I know for a fact that without serious efforts by our IT folks and vendors — and some serious expenditures — we would have been out of business, period. Our publishing systems, advertising systems, circulation systems and even our presses were all dependent on critical software that performed date arithmetic. And they all would have failed if we hadn’t prepared for Y2K.
I have not talked to an IT professional who was around during that period in any business, anywhere, who didn’t tell the same story. The entire IT world mobilized to prevent a Y2K disaster, and it worked. The world spent a lot of money on programming, on new hardware, and new software. Some people made a lot of money from it.
But it wasn’t money wasted. Programmers learned that shortcuts can have unintended consequences and have been more careful ever since. The companies and agencies that upgraded their computers have benefited over the long run. New York City officials, for example, credited redundant systems created and upgraded for Y2K with the quick rebound of the city’s IT infrastructure after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
But conspiracy theorists are still arguing that it was all a plot by the government and the computer companies, and the Trilateral Commission, and the Illuminati — or whoever — to create a Y2K panic. And many of them are drawing comparisons with the H1N1 pandemic: You’ll find a spirited argument about the issue in the New York Times “Bits” blog in December.
Yes, we’ll probably wind up with a lot of unused H1N1 vaccine on our hands — but I can’t imagine the world’s public health agencies doing any less than they have to battle a pandemic that threatened to be frighteningly deadly. And it still might, because the flu season isn’t over, and as any epidemiologist will tell you, influenza is constantly mutating.
Although the response in the U.S. and abroad was far from perfect, the community of people responsible for public health mobilized quickly, identified the new pathogen, developed a vaccine for it and managed to distribute it on a widespread basis — wide enough that instead of rationing vaccine, government agencies are begging people to come in for flu shots.
And if it didn’t kill millions of people (apparently, the only outcome that would have satisfied the skeptics) H1N1 has killed thousands — many of them young — and infected millions less seriously. Thousands more have been spared because a vaccine was available. Making this happen quickly is expensive.
Just as important, the H1N1 experience has forced government, business, public health agencies, hospitals, and other care providers around the world to examine their plans for dealing with a serious pandemic — plans that in many cases were found wanting.
In any case, as an “older person,” I wasn’t in the early H1N1 vaccination target groups. But now the government has given everyone the go-ahead for shots. During my annual physical exam a couple of weeks ago, the doctor brought up the subject and noted that I wasn’t in any of the high-risk groups. But she would be happy to give me a shot if I wanted one.
I rolled up my sleeve. Why take chances?
Mike Himowitz is Deputy Managing Editor at MedPage Today and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.
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