Precaution and bats

2007-09-13

in Security, The environment

The ‘precautionary principle’ is frequently invoked in arguments about both security and the environment, but remains enduringly controversial. No matter how it is formulated, it has to do with probabilities and thresholds for action. Sometimes, it is taken to mean that there need not be proof that something is harmful before it is restricted: for instance, in the case of genetically modified foods. Sometimes, it is taken to mean that there need not be proof that something be beneficiail before it is done: for example, with organic foods. Sometimes, it has to do with who gets the benefit of the doubt, in the face of inconclusive or inadequate scientific data.

This article from Orion Magazine provides some interesting discussion of how it pertains to health threats generally, with an anecdote about rabid bats as an illustrative example.

I am not sure if there is all that much of a take home message – other than that people behave inconsistently when presented with risks that might seem similar in simple cost-benefit terms – but the article is an interesting one.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. September 13, 2007 at 12:51 pm

The bat thing could just be a sign of bureaucratic ass-covering. If your agency is in charge of rabies and somebody dies from it after you decide not to test them, you are going to catch hell.

The same dynamic rarely exists in relation to environmental problems.

Anon September 13, 2007 at 3:57 pm

As I recall, bats are the Big Bug Scourge of the Skies!

Especially now that they carry Marburg.

Sarah September 13, 2007 at 6:47 pm

There is surely some distinction to be made between infectious and non-infectious diseases – it makes sense to be more careful with the former (like rabies) than the latter (like cancer), presuming that governments want to stop epidemics. Hence we innoculate everyone against measles but pay less attention to the arguably greater health costs of heart disease (related to poor diet & lack of exercise). One might also argue that diseases which generally kill the old (like cancer, heart disease, strokes) are less socially traumatic and less economically damaging than those which kill children and young adults (eg. HIV, measles).
As an aside, I never knew bats carried rabies. I’ve encountered lots of bats inside disused buildings in the UK, where they are considered protected species. I presume the English ones aren’t rabid, however (given our careful quarantine of animals).

Anon September 17, 2007 at 12:17 pm

Bat rabid, woman sought

Sep 14, 2007 11:43 AM

Curtis Rush
Staff Reporter

Toronto Public Health is looking for a woman who took an injured bat to the Toronto Wildlife Centre on Sept. 4 because the bat has since tested positive for rabies.

Dr. Rosana Pellizzari, associate medical officer of health, said it’s important for the woman to contact Public Health immediately because she could have easily been exposed to rabies if she handled the bat with her bare hands.

“People can become easily infected with rabies if they are scratched or bitten by an infected bat and this individual may need to be vaccinated,” Pellizzari said in a statement.

. November 16, 2009 at 6:03 pm

“Because of this fundamental distinction, Davison doubts that the lessons from Y2K will have much resonance when it comes to global warming. Indeed, in a perverse way, the planet’s success in fighting Y2K might actually hamper anti-global-warming efforts. Just look at how people reacted when nothing much went wrong after Jan. 1, 2000. They concluded that the whole thing had been a ruse.

Logically, this makes no sense—the fact that there were few problems on New Year’s Day could just as easily have meant that the effort to fix Y2K had worked. “But that’s the political problem with the precautionary principle,” Davison says. “If you’re successful in avoiding a problem, you then don’t have the evidence that you’ve been successful.” Say we go through flu season and see relatively few deaths from H1N1. Does that mean that swine flu was overhyped or that the massive vaccine program worked? Each side in the debate will be free to draw its own conclusions—and you can be sure they will.”

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