What I Learned from Battling Infectious Disease Outbreaks

December 4, 2018

I had a rough weekend as part of a team dealing with a global pandemic of four infectious diseases. It did not end well.

First there was an epidemic in Atlanta. Then there were successive outbreaks of different diseases in Osaka, Moscow, and Madrid. Cures for the four infectious diseases we were battling were being developed. Two of the diseases had been eradicated and the third one cured, but alas, our efforts ended in failure.

When we had another go at it last night, we prevailed and developed the cures we needed. All of this took place in my dining room around the board game Pandemic. My wife, my daughter, and I managed to save humanity and I am better for the experience.

Though Pandemic is a board game about simulated infectious disease outbreaks, it holds valuable lessons that can be applied to the real world of rare disease advocates seeking to find treatments and cures.

My fascination with infectious disease began when I read John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It is a gripping account of the influenza outbreak from World War I that may have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. My imagination has also been stoked by other books, such as Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus, a somewhat more sensationalized account of infectious disease, but none the less a fun and terrifying read.

Who needs Stephen King or The Night of the Living Dead when what’s lurking in viral reservoirs deep inside a cave in Africa or brewing behind a sealed canister in a biosafety level 4 lab in Fort Detrick can far more terrifying than fictional concoctions?

I admit my imagination may have enhanced the experience of playing Pandemic, but it is not like most board games. Players don’t compete against each other. Instead, it is what’s known as a cooperative game. All of the players work together to beat the game.

The object is to develop cures for the four infectious diseases represented by cubes on a map. Each player is assigned a role, such as scientist, medic, or researcher. Each character has special abilities.

The game has an insidious way of spreading and amplifying disease and there are several ways to lose. The number of cards in the game limits the turns players can take and imposes a finite opportunity to beat the game.

Here are a few lessons from a couple of games of Pandemic that are useful for rare disease advocates to ponder:

Play to your strengths and take advantage of them
Each character in the game has special abilities. For instance, the dispatcher can move people around the board. The medic can more quickly treat diseases. The researcher can better “share knowledge,” the cards needed to cure a disease. Understand your strengths and use them. Get help from others who have abilities you don’t have.

Balance disease treatment and cure
If you spend too much time on treating infections, epidemics, and outbreaks, you can waste time not addressing the need for a cure. If you focus too much on developing the cure, the spread of the disease will overwhelm and beat you. Balance is necessary.

Prioritize and strategize building
Reacting to the game as it unfolds will be a recipe for disaster. Have a strategy to facilitate access to all parts of the board and work with other players to develop cures as fast as possible by “sharing knowledge.”

The clock is not your friend
Once you exceed a set number of outbreaks or all of any one disease color has been exhausted, you lose. But the way we lost the game was by not beating it fast enough and exhausting all of the cards. Time is not your friend. Move fast or lose.

Cooperation is essential. It is what the game is all about
We’ve had our share of family ugliness around a Monopoly board through the years. There are certain family members in this household with a bit of a competitive streak. In Pandemic, if you don’t learn how to collaborate, you will lose.

For a game about infectious disease, Pandemic has something to say to rare disease advocates.


December 4, 2018



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