Business owners and public-health experts might have the tool they have been waiting for to help them gauge the likelihood of an influenza pandemic. Called the Avian Flu Market, the tool is a prediction futures market that taps into the knowledge of health-care workers around the world to help anticipate the course of the dreaded H5N1 strain of influenza.
"Our hypothesis is that there still is a lot of information, and different people have different pieces of information from different professional backgrounds that may be helpful," says Dr. Phil Polgreen, an infectious disease physician, med-school professor and medical director of the project. "Markets are effective at aggregating information from diverse sources."
The "traders" in this market will initially be the 20 or so editors of the ProMED listserv, an online global reporting network overseen by the International Society for Infectious Diseases. Contracts were priced and trading started in March. Polgreen expects to eventually increase the market to include 200 active traders, who will come from the ranks of the 40,000 members of the ISID.
Some of the contracts currently being priced include: "Will 300 cases of H5N1 in humans be confirmed by WHO before July 1, 2007?" As of March 1, 2007, the total human cases according to the World Health Organization stood at 277.
Another question for a contract was: "Will the first WHO-confirmed human case of H5N1 in North or South America occur before July 1, 2007?" As of the March WHO numbers, no human cases were in the Americas.
A third contract: "Will Phase Five of the WHO-defined Pandemic Alert Period be announced before July 1, 2007?" Defined by the WHO, Phase 5 would involve multiple "clusters" of human cases, "suggesting that the virus is becoming increasingly more adaptive to humans."
Forrest Nelson, economics professor and AFM's principle investigator, expressed optimism that the markets could be a valuable surveillance tool for government and health agencies. His positivity could be a factor, in part, of the success of his Iowa Electronic Market, which has proven accurate in predicting election results since 1988.
Polgreen cautions, however, that the AFM is an "experiment."
"We're just pointing toward different events," he says, "and some of them probably will occur that deal with geographic locations or spread to animal populations."
He stresses that, although experts agree that a pandemic will happen, disagreement does exist over whether this particular strain--H5N1--will be the source.
The AFM project comes by way of the University of Iowa, as a collaboration of the university's Tippie College of Business and the Carver College of Medicine. It is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
April 15, 2007
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