At 6:48 a.m. on April 22, 2009, a leading flu blogger named "Revere" posted the first warning about a remarkable bit of news he'd spotted in a routine weekly report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. With what he labeled "an element of luck," the CDC had discovered a novel swine flu virus in two San Diego-area children.
Within 33 hours, CDC officials were telling excited reporters that human transmission had been detected in California and Texas. It wasn't the H5N1 bird flu whose gory onset had been anticipated for years by Internet health activists, but swine flu was scary.
To have played such a key role in detecting the emergence of a deadly global virus thrilled the worldwide virtual community known as "Flublogia," whose members use social media to track influenza and other infectious agents that range from KPC bacteria to Chikungunya.
The excitement didn't last. When swine flu turned into something of a nonevent (except for the mostly young victims whose lungs turned to pulp), fatigue inexorably gripped Flublogia. Less than 11 months after he had broken the news of the outbreak, Revere (who turned out to be a pseudonymous group of public health professionals led by a Boston epidemiologist) became the first of many flu bloggers to sign off.
"The Reveres' retirement left a gaping hole in Flublogia," recalls Mike Coston, a former paramedic and emergency preparedness firebrand who has blogged at Avian Flu Diary since early 2006. Like many surviving bloggers, Coston was drawn to the subject of infectious diseases by H5N1, the avian flu virus that most experts still consider the world No. 1 infectious-disease threat.
Coston rises at 4 a.m. daily to conduct research and write until midday, resuming work in the evening. He posts news, analysis, and historical context backed with links about a world of microbial menaces, drawing on the work of "dozens of news hounds" who crowdsource disease surveillance at a bustling bulletin board called FluTrackers. Posting in thousands of the site's forums and sub-forums, they track down, translate, and post alarming health developments drawn from local newspapers and obscure scientific journals.
Few outbreaks, anywhere, go undetected in Flublogia.
The community's reward has been Contagion -- a hit movie about a killer virus that exalts science and public health professionals, in part by pitting them against an evil blogger who looks like Julian Assange with bad teeth. Contagion's young villain pitches bogus antivirals on his vast Internet platform and even provokes a crusty scientist to dismiss blogging as "graffiti with punctuation."
As someone who's about to issue a novel about a do-it-yourself flu blogger's struggle to survive an avian flu pandemic in New York's East Village, I was modestly affronted when I saw the movie. My architect-blogger in American Fever: A Tale of Romance & Pestilence is fictitious, but he and his knowledge base emerged from years of serious research, much of which I've conducted on flu blogs.
What, I've been wondering, do the real flu bloggers -- who don't even accept advertising on their well-traveled sites, lest an ad for Tamiflu sap their credibility by popping up next to a story on antivirals -- think of Contagion's greedy Alan Krumwiede?
"I thought he was a caricature," says Crawford Killian, a retired business-writing teacher and novelist in Vancouver who serves as Flublogia's unofficial dean and longest-running contributor via his popular site, H5N1. "I know there are a lot of very strange people out there, blogging their brains out. But for a guy making $4 million, [Krumwiede] seemed to be operating solo -- 12 million hits per day and he's sticking posters under windshield wipers?"
"Part of me was slightly insulted," says Coston, who likes the movie. "But there are a number of conspiratorial antivaccine bloggers out there that are in some ways close to that." Indeed, a popular antivaccine site called NaturalNews.com greeted Contagion by warning visitors: "Hollywood begins mass brainwashing campaign to get people ready for the next bioengineered virus release."
"These nuts exist and the Internet gives them an audience and microphone," says Scott McPherson, chief information officer at the Florida House of Representatives and host of Scott McPherson's Web Presence, an IT-and-infrastructure-oriented flu blog. Calling the Krumwiede character "a 21st century snake-oil salesman," he hails Contagion as "an intelligently written movie. I particularly liked the fact that the feds decided to shut him down."
"The majority of us didn't like the movie, didn't find it hard-hitting enough," says Cottontop, an upstate New York mother of two who posts on the Flu Wiki bulletin board and blogs at her Flu News Network. As for Contagion's Krumwiede, she says: "We are not like that. Flu forums and flu blogs are 24-hour public health services -- first responders to getting the news out."
Bestselling author Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague, I Heard the Sirens Scream), who as a paid consultant contributed a lot of ideas to more than 30 drafts for Contagion's screenplay, says that Krumwiede's character was inspired by her shock at seeing how many people posted false information about "life and death matters" during the swine flu pandemic.
Still, says Garrett, "there's a whole bunch of very good blog sites. You can't believe people have the time to do all this." As she and Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns worked hard to whip up the movie's MEV-1 bat virus, she was tracking Flublogia. "Revere was way ahead of the curve. You'd think: 'How did he find this out?' You have to admire the tenacity and the digging."
On the plus side, the flu bloggers -- who universally complain that gas, electricity, and food never runs out in Contagion -- agree that the movie has spurred interest in their work. McPherson, who until recently hadn't blogged much about flu for more than a year, says he's "fired back up again," with five posts in various stages of development.
"My blog has picked up a lot of new people since Contagion," says Cottontop. "And the number of Indonesians reading it and going to Flu Wiki has really picked up, too. Something's going on over there with H5N1."