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Taking place at Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday 11 June 2016

Biohazard SymbolThe BSI is sponsoring Outbreak! at Cheltenham Science Festival, a street game where you play a government scientist tasked with identifying and controlling a deadly new disease.  Here, Outbreak! designer Jo Pennock talks us through the rationale behind the game and why the clock is ticking to come up with an action plan before it’s too late.

I remember standing at the top of the stairs at the age of 8, covered in measles spots and roaring at my sister, threatening to give her a toxic hug. We had both just had chickenpox and, within weeks, it seemed I had picked up German measles. Neither of us wanted to be ill ever again. Even at a young age I knew I could spread disease by touching something … or someone.

As an immunologist I am obsessed with finding the source of an infection, but most of the time this is a futile exercise. Am I sick because of the person who coughed in my face in the bus queue? Was it a dirty door handle? Lift button? Or even the contaminated change that I accepted off the streaming cashier in the supermarket?! These fears become magnified when we think of the urgency, panic and devastation caused by pathogens such as Ebola or Zika virus. In fact, one of the most important use of resources in these emerging epidemics is contact tracing – tracking back from the patient to discover the trail of infection. Laborious and time consuming, it provides key information about the source of a disease, which is essential in providing the right treatment and trying to halt its spread.

Understanding the spread of an epidemic

We also need information about the pathogen itself to understand an epidemic. Is it a new strain? Does it cause more severe symptoms than those already known? Actually these same questions are asked every year with the design of the flu vaccine, and are why we have a new one annually. But in the case of the influenza virus, time is on our side. Emerging flu strains are sequenced, vaccines designed and then manufactured on a massive scale. Immunisation schedules are set up and people are protected. In the case of epidemics like Ebola, the speed and spread of the infection could mean that the virus is changing, mutating, adapting in each new host. With many people dying, the pressure is on to speed up the scientific process.

This is where some really cool technology comes in. Did you know that 99 individual virus samples were sequenced in the first two weeks of the Ebola epidemic?1 This unprecedented number was due to a leap forward in sequencing technology, and helped to determine if the epidemic was caused by a new strain of Ebola or a mixture of strains and if existing treatments could work. This rapid sequencing was one factors that meant vaccine trials could be started in February 2015, less than one year after the epidemic had been recognised.

We challenge you…

Outbreak! in action

Outbreak! game in action

However, a lot of difficult decisions were made along the way. Imagine arriving at a field hospital as a doctor or nurse to find that, in all probability, most people on your ward will have died over the next two weeks. Even worse, knowing that in a short time more people will become infected and will fill up the empty beds. As a scientific advisor to the government, what would you do? What decisions would you make? Could you take the data and come up with a plan?

I challenge you to try (and have fun at the same time). Put on a lab coat, grab a virus-detector and get going. The clock is ticking. People are already dying and we need your help. Join us at Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday 11 June to take part in Outbreak!, an ‘about town’ event centred on Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham. Work as part of a Control Team to solve clues allowing you to access data and information from various locations around the town to arrive at a comprehensive plan for the outbreak response. Come and experience first-hand the role that scientists play in epidemic control. How many people will YOU save?

Outbreak! – get involved

Place:  Activity Tents, by the Holst Fountain in Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, GL50 1QA

When: From 11am, Saturday 11 June.

Booking: No need to book in advance. Just sign up for the next available slot (approximately every 20 minutes). Individuals and groups welcome.

Cost: Completely free!

What do I need: You will need a smart phone to download the free app (Android & iOS) in order to receive clues and instructions. Lab coats and virus-detectors provided.

Joanne Pennock, Outbreak! Designer and Lecturer in Immunology at The University of Manchester

 Outbreak was initially developed with funding from The University of Manchester and Wellcome Trust.

1Gire SK et al.  2014 Science doi: 10.1126/science.1259657.


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