We remember growing up in an elementary school with only vague information about these little buggers. First off, they weren't alive, our teachers said. And we couldn't see even a microscope photograph of them, because they were too small to see. And we didn't have any way to kill them. They seemed pretty weird then, and they haven't gotten much better.
We now can take images of viruses using powerful transmission electron microscopy (that's flu on the left, and the very famous Ebola on the right). And thanks to the AIDS pandemic, we have developed some drugs which inhibit viral replication. But we still don't have much that will kill the existing virus in our bodies, the way that penicillin can kill bacteria. Why is that? Because our 4th grade teacher Mr. Peyton was right about them not being alive, and you can't kill something that's never been kicking.
Viruses are basically just strands of chemistry. Unfortunately, when they get together with our cells, all the right other chemistry is there to replicate them like crazy, and often, there aren't many controls in place to stop them. So, they replicate until the pop the cell. And now you've got a bazillion little guys running around (except they don't run, because they're not alive). And pretty soon you're infected.
We often don't have very good defenses, because virii's short lifespans and promiscuous reproduction cause a lot of mutations, some of which make them better at replicating, or better at using other resources in our cells. Of course, these better fellas invariably survive, and so the next time around, the virus is different, and our immune systems don't have much clue where to start with them.
So, how does all this play into designer's hands? Well, we said before that you can't really kill them. Anti-viral drugs currently focus on inhibiting the virus's ability to reproduce, which effectively "kills" them, but you've still got viral particles floating around your body for a long time, possibly forever, so you need the drugs forever. So we need methods for preventing the virus ever getting into our bodies in the first place.
This is easier, and harder than you think. Very few current deadly viruses are airborne (even Ebola is spread by fluids) because airborne viruses kill off so many people, that they run out of hosts to spread between, and die out. So devices that we have already designed, like condoms, rubber gloves, face guards for surgeons, and biohazard boxes for needles in hospitals are great leaps forward when it comes to keeping fluid-spread virii from getting around.
But the threat of a dangerous airborne virus, like AIDS, West Nile (spread by mosquitoes), or bird flu is frightening, because it could spread so quickly. Airplanes, high speed trains, and crowded interchange hubs could all become machinery to spread a virus like this. Methods like those employed during the SARS scare a couple years ago -- masks and facial coverings -- were later found to be mostly useless. So there is still great opportunity to explore how to mitigate the spread of an airborne virus like this, because the potential for harm is so great.
Worldchanging has a thorough analysis of the possible extent of the spread of bird flu, a form of influenza which is not infectious to humans, but has made the jump before, and could be especially deadly in our new, connected world climate. This is a map showing recent reported cases of bird flu throughout China.
Obviously, designers don't have a huge part to play in the political positioning around this latest threat of disease. Nor do we have a huge part to play in dealing with the medicinal side of treating these new epidemics. But since our knowledge is in altering the behavior and functionality of our users, it seems like this is a cause worth considering. It way be that a different arangement for incomming and outgoing passengers in airports could minimize the frequency of spread cases of a virus. Or maybe there is some sort of physical barrier which could be worn, but also look good. Maybe it's something entirely different.
Come on, it's not every day that you get to say "Yeah, I'm working on saving humanity from a global pandemic". It could be cool to put on your resume.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team