Significance Magazine

When I think ‘public health’ this week, two stories spring to mind – Ebola and London parks, from the appalling to the ridiculous.

Ebola, as I write, is ravaging several African countries, with the most optimistic predictions hoping that the rate of increase of horrible deaths will reach zero early in 2015. A recently discovered virus meets inadequate medical infrastructure and we have a classic public health problem on the scale of the cholera outbreaks that spurred the Victorians to build sewers, if not of the repeated plagues that swept London two centuries earlier.

Both cholera and the earlier plague outbreaks spurred the beginnings of statistical approaches to public health, and that’s why today’s researchers can predict how long it could take us to get the disease under control, how many more hospital beds Sierra Leone needs, and so on.