ASA Members Stop the Presses with
New Book About Disease Outbreaks

Regina Nuzzo, ASA Senior Advisor for Statistics Communication and Media Innovation

 

It’s not often statisticians get to shout, “Stop the presses,” but that’s what longtime ASA members Steve Rigdon and Ronald Fricker found themselves doing earlier this year.

Just as their book, Monitoring the Health of Populations by Tracking Disease Outbreaks: Saving Humanity from the Next Plague —the latest in the ASA’s collaborative series with CRC Press—was going to the printer in early 2020, news was emerging from China about some bizarre pneumonia cases.

“By January, we had heard just a little bit about the novel coronavirus,” said Rigdon, a professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at Saint Louis University. “By mid to late January, it was clear we would have to at least add a paragraph about the disease. We asked the editors if we could make just a few changes.”

“We actually stopped the printing of the book because it was literally going to press just as the Wuhan outbreak was starting,” said Fricker, a professor in the department of statistics at Virginia Tech and associate dean for faculty affairs and administration in the college of science.

The authors managed to quickly add breaking information about COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus at a point when the number of worldwide cases was only 700. Within weeks, that number would jump to 70,000.

This kind of mind-boggling exponential growth is illustrated in the opening pages of the book. The first chapter kicks off with a fictional scenario of a pair of ecotourists from New York who pick up a new avian flu strain in a Southeast Asia live meat market and unwittingly spread it to six continents within days. It’s a chillingly prescient story told with careful statistical detail in a voice that’s accessible to statisticians and nonstatisticians alike.

“Given the success of public health interventions, someone casually reading this preface might think this book is purely historical and they no longer need to worry about massive disease outbreaks,” the authors write in the preface. “For example, one might think the days of the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed somewhere between three and five percent of the world’s population, or the ‘Black Death’ bubonic plague of the 14th century that killed about a third of Europe’s population, are long gone. But that would be wrong.”

Now, of course, even casual readers will know better. But thanks to this new book, they will also know why and how this all happened.

Learn more about the ASA-CRC Series on Statistical Reasoning in Science and Society .