The morning after: festivals are prone to outbreaks of mumps and measles. Photo: Olivia Harris/Reuters
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How to stay healthy at summer festivals

Following outbreaks of campylobacter infection at Glastonbury and flu at festivals in Europe, some researchers are calling for better surveillance of the threats to festival-goers’ health.

It’s the season of crowds. We’ve had the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and countless music festivals. Our airports are heaving. There’s a plethora of diseases you might catch from such proximity – so, should you worry? Astonishingly, almost certainly not. And that is thanks to mass surveillance.

For instance, we now have a report on the effectiveness of health surveillance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The event threw 11 million people from 205 nations into close contact. Objectively, it looks like a public health nightmare – yet it wasn’t.

In fact, we might have predicted that from the entirely dull health records of previous Olympic gatherings. At Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, less than 1 per cent of the visits to health-care professionals were due to infectious diseases. Athens 2004 had no reports of infectious disease outbreaks and the communicable disease reports from Beijing 2008 were down 40 per cent on those for the city in 2007.

London 2012 followed the pattern. As with previous Olympics, its safety can be ascribed to years of planning, with protocols established for the daily reporting of any threat of a virulent infectious disease. Intensive-care units were given access to websites for alerting public health authorities to suspicious cases.

The precautions included daily assessments of the worldwide threat of new infectious diseases and how these might travel to London. That is how we know that a few teams suffered norovirus outbreaks before they arrived, and that there was an outbreak of chicken pox among staff at one of the Olympic hotels. All threats were safely contained. During the event, there were a few cases of gastrointestinal infections but little more. In the end, nothing occurred that would not happen in the average UK summer.

Not every mass gathering benefits from Olympic-style planning. Music festivals are particularly prone to problems. There have been outbreaks of Campylobacter infection at Glastonbury and of H1N1 at festivals in Belgium, Hungary and Serbia. That is why some researchers are calling for better surveillance of the threats to festival-goers’ health.

A comprehensive survey of 32 years of medical reports from large-scale music festivals shows that they are generally low-risk events, but this does vary. Reports of gastrointestinal problems range from nine per 100,000 people at Glastonbury 1997 to 55,000 per 100,000 at the 1987 meeting of the Rainbow Family in North Carolina. When over half the people at your chosen event contract dysentery, you know you’ve picked badly.

Music festivals are also hot spots for occasional breakouts of measles and mumps. That is partly because there is a higher incidence of vaccine-shunning among the segments of the population likely to attend music festivals. Some health researchers are recommending that festivals implement a rule similar to the one in place for Hajj pilgrims, who have to present a complete immunisation record; or at least offer on-site vaccinations.

Judicious use of social media might also help. A collaboration between British, Israeli and Danish researchers correlated 7.5 million tweets and 32,000 online health searches to link disease outbreaks with specific festival gatherings. It wouldn’t be hard, they pointed out, to use Twitter or Facebook to follow up visitors at a festival that has created particular health problems. Festival-goers might benefit from messages with advice about their likely exposure, symptoms to look out for and whether to seek a medical consultation. Mass surveillance doesn’t always have to be used for evil. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.