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Power Grids, Vaccines, and Immunity

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… protecting the grid against small blackouts enables it to run at higher and higher power levels, ultimately setting up the grid for a major collapse.

The other day, I was sorting through some old magazines before throwing them out, when that thing that cements my status as “nerd girl” happened—I started reading articles. Peter Fairley’s “Averting the Blackout of the Century” in Discover magazine chronicling the journey of a trio of power engineers and physicists as they developed new computational models to predict and avoid power blackouts caught my eye.

In analyzing the complex grid that provides power across the United States, the trio discovered that the prevailing practice of preventing small blackouts actually increases the risk of large, catastrophic outages. Their message: protecting the grid against small blackouts enables it to run at higher and higher power levels, ultimately setting up the grid for a major collapse. 

“That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s in line with systems research that shows merely preventing failure can increase a system’s probability of collapse. Consider forest fires: Research and history show that suppressing small forest fires allows kindling to build up, setting the stage for large, truly devastating conflagrations,” Fairley writes.

“The idea that preventing failures might unwittingly hasten big blackouts proved wildly unpopular with power companies and engineers,” media reassuring the public following the 2003 Northeast blackout, and officials at the U.S. Department of Energy, and the trio’s research funding got cut off. Thankfully they persisted and found other funding, and today power companies are slowly opening to the idea of the smart grid approach.

So what do power grids have to do with vaccines and immunity? Quite a lot, actually, if you take the “system” part of “immune system” seriously. Once again we are reminded that just like with ecological systems (forest fires) and economic systems (market “corrections”), the immune system has the innate capacity to find equilibrium and that we must tolerate the fluctuations (fevers, acute inflammatory illnesses that condition the system, cleansing illnesses that discharge waste) inherent in that process.

We are reminded that unintended consequences often arise from an intolerance for any illness and “The conventional practice of …trying to thwart even the smallest failures, may actually increase the likelihood of big ones.”  We also see another example of what happens politically—outright rejection, ostracization, funding withdrawal—when the prevailing paradigm is challenged, and how the pioneers of good ideas can ultimately be vindicated and prevail with dogged persistence.

The fight for a reexamination of the public policy towards good stewardship of our immune system is a noble cause, and the science of systems analysis can be an ally in those efforts.

4 Responses to Power Grids, Vaccines, and Immunity

  1. Susan Pearce Reply

    October 20, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    I just now read this article called “History of chicken pox may reduce risk of brain cancer later in life.” This was from the Baylor College of Medicine.

    https://www.bcm.edu/news/cancer/chicken-pox-may-reduce-risk-of-brain-cancer

  2. kit Reply

    October 20, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Excellent article. Years ago, I also realized the parallel between forest fire prevention and vaccine policy in the US. I’d like to take the analogy one step farther.

    Fires naturally burn in forests as a cyclical phenomenon in which underbrush accumulates and then finally ignites, causing another natural cycle that, in fact, rejuvenates the forest. Modern society’s official aim is simply to squelch that fire-rebirth cycle and just try to hold the forest static, making the forest 1) really not natural anymore, until 2) it eventually burns anyway, to a greater degree, because so much underbrush accumulates for longer periods.

    Similarly, modern vaccine policy aims to squelch disease–even disease that is not normally harmful to people and may in fact be beneficial. And by artificially directing our immune systems to a select 20 bugs or so, this strategy eventually weakens our immune response to other bugs and makes us MORE susceptible (a parallel to how the accumulating underbrush makes the forest more susceptible). This has been documented in research related to flu vaccines, and from my own discussions with immunologists, I suspect that this is true generally.

    It’s my suspicion that vaccine policy is basically setting us up for bigger personal illnesses as well as bigger population vulnerability to epidemics. For example, the people who regularly got the flu vaccine were MORE likely to get the H1N1 flu in the 2009-2010 season (see http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/05/01/regular-flu-vaccine-actually-increases-risk-of-swine-flu.aspx).

    So what’s a good response?
    For firefighting, first eliminate as much as possible the need for the firefighting. Don’t let people settle in outlying areas in/near the forest unless they understand that they will not be given fire protection. Then, let the fires happen, for the most part as they would naturally, realizing that it is ultimately good for the continued lifecycle of the forest.

    With regard to vaccine policy, focus on making our bodies less susceptible to disease, through diet and social habits, then, unless these diseases are truly deadly, let them happen, realizing that it is good for public health for your body to receive some challenges sometimes.

    The criticism of both the above proposals will be that “we could have prevented” a few deaths due to a fire or, say, due to a widespread measles outbreak. But I suspect we probably already incur a larger number of deaths pursuing the modern strategies. Some people, after all, die of the vaccine for measles. A few studies from the past have shown that people who have had measles are far less likely to get asthma. Since lots of people die from asthma, then natural measles probably should be classified as a net lifesaver.

    Taking the analogy to fires again, currently many people live in outlying areas in or near forests and are therefore much more susceptible to death, injury or damage. If fewer people live there in the first place, then the chance of their dying by forest fire is much diminished, then fewer firefighters would die in the course of duty since they HAVE no duty there.

    I’m not saying that vaccines and forest-firefighting are bad. It’s just the way we are using them. Of course they can be useful, but not in the frequent and generalized ways that we are currently applying them.

  3. André Angelantoni Reply

    October 20, 2016 at 10:39 am

    We can see a part of this concept operating with the Varicella vaccine allowing more shingles cases in older people.

    And the fact that annual influenza shots hamper CD8+ T cell production thus making a person more susceptible to strains not in the vaccine and to other infections is another example.

    Annual Vaccination against Influenza Virus Hampers Development of Virus-Specific CD8+ T Cell Immunity in Children
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3209321/

    Any others?

  4. David Weiner Reply

    October 17, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Excellent analysis

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