Math and swine flu contagion

Posted May 05, 2009, at 6:16 p.m.

Mr. Murray was my high school math teacher. When I was in his algebra class President Jimmy Carter went to stay at his house. Back in the day Jimmy Carter visited hometowns of everyday Americans.

We all loved Mr. Murray, even the kids who didn’t like math. He was so nice we couldn’t blame the president for wanting to visit him. We knew politics and math didn’t have anything to do with each other. Politics was just an interest that Mr. Murray had. If we had asked, we would have expected Mr. Murray to say that you don’t need math to be a politician.

We were wrong. We need math to watch the news. Remember studying exponential growth and graphing the resulting number based on what we multiplied and added to a beginning number? We used the X and Y axes to represent these points.

So let’s have the X-axis — that’s the one that goes side to side — represent the number of people who already have the swine flu. And let’s use the possible factors for infecting otherwise healthy people as supplied by the University of Arizona School of Pharmacology. Our Y-axis of newly infected people could expand at a rate of six to 16 times by the fourth time an infected person comes into contact with another human being.

Here’s where the math gets really mind-boggling — or as math geeks say “exponential” — let’s say, each of those six to 16 people then make contact with four more folks. And let’s say that this all happens in the first half-hour that our X-axis works their shift at some fast-food restaurant. If you took calculus, you’d know that there’s a Z-axis, which represents time. Imagine what our three-dimensional graph will look like by the end of a week.

So there’s a chance that this swine flu is going to be a pandemic. And there’s a chance it won’t be. We do have some control — we aren’t victims of algebraic formulas, after all — but we are victims of politicians who can’t understand them.

According to U.S. News and World Report, pandemic specialist Dr. Eric Tayag says that pandemics occur “every 10 to 40 years, and that the last pandemic happened in 1968.” That pandemic killed about a million people.

The pandemic of 1918, the really famous killer flu, killed 20 times that number. Our Congress can’t possibly do math or read graphs. Otherwise, in 2004 when President Bush asked them to appropriate funds to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic, they would have done it.

Have no fear, brave citizens! If politics and wrangling over budgets got us into this vulnerable spot, politics will surely get us out. Just this past week our politicians told us that if we feel sick we should just stay home. We’re not to send sick kids to school and we’re to skip work to take care of them.

Again our math-challenged representatives lose track of the numbers. Maybe it’s because they all make on average $169,300 per year and they get sick pay. According to a study conducted by the University of Maine, approximately 28 million people in the United States get paid minimum wage or less. The Joint Economic Committee report for our U.S. Congress states that 40 percent of those minimum wage workers are the only income in their house. That figure includes the 2.8 percent of single-parent households that are headed by a minimum wage earner as well as minimum wage earners who live alone.

So let’s tackle this one last math problem: 28 million people times 40 percent is 11.2 million folks who really can’t afford to stay home. If each of them sees four people a half-hour and they infect six to 16 others, let’s just say we won’t be containing any pandemic.

You know, the funny thing about Mr. Murray is that not long after he taught our math class and entertained President Carter, he became a member of our state Legislature. What’s he doing now? He’s a Roman Catholic priest. Maybe as a mathematician who has seen the inner workings of politics he has learned to put his faith elsewhere.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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