University of Michigan students are about to take part in something rather novel: a living flu experiment. The school has decided to take the over 2,000 students who live in dorms, and use them as a live action, what if, flu exposure and prevention test. Since dorm students live in close quarters, sharing resources like bathrooms, kitchens, and even bedrooms, they make an ideal experimental model to track how flu moves through the population, and what methods might stop it.
So this week, prior to any sign of flu, students were broken into three groups. One group was given hand sanitizer and cotton masks, a second received only the masks, and a third group will have no protection at all, other than what they choose to implement. At the first sign of outbreak of flu in the dorms, the students are to begin following the specific protocol they were given.
That, of course, is where all the questions about validity come in to play. Just how many students are going to follow the protocol they were assigned? Has the control group already been “tampered” with, knowing what the other groups will be doing to protect themselves? (And will this encourage the controls to voluntarily quarantine from the sick, wash their hands more frequently, and so forth?) How do you control for other factors, like being high risk, or around high risk for transmission groups from outside the dorms? (Such as working in child care or a hospital.) Will the virulence of the variety of flu be accounted for? And of course, the cynical question of just who’s sponsoring this, anyhow? Purell?
The epidemiologist in charge of the study wants to create less anecdotal and more concrete evidence that masks are a low cost method of preventing the spread of flu. Quite obviously, low cost and easy to implement methods will be very important when the next flu pandemic comes along. I’m just not certain, without seeing the methodology and other factors, that this study will actually contribute to a solid body of empirical evidence, or just further the anecdotal claims.