One of the current buzzwords in HIV is “combination prevention” — a polite way of saying that anything that works even a little bit should be on the menu. It’s a way of trying to tear people away from the kindergarten level “Abstinence works, No, no, condoms work, No, no, circumcision works, No, no, it’s all about clean needles” debate which has proved such an energy sink in recent years. And it’s much to be applauded (as long as it stays focused on things that really do work, even a little bit).
But “Maths works”? That’s a new one on me. “A team of Canadian graduate students and two leading mathematicians … will travel to Botswana next week for a workshop that aims to teach students how to control the spread of diseases through math equations and formulas“, according to Canada’s CBC.
Now I do a fair bit of modelling myself (of the mathematical kind, I hasten to add for those who’ve never seen me). I believe a good projection scenario can tickle a government in all sorts of useful ways. What if I spend all my money testing pregnant women, and none buying clean needles for drug injectors? What happens to my treatment bills if we teach schoolkids to cross their legs but don’t help gay men to recognise the first symptoms of HIV infection? Equations can make people think. They can conjour up the best of worlds and the worst. They can guesstimate budgets and generate column inches. But controlling the spread of diseases with equations? That takes a combination of nerdiness and hubris that I’ve not seen on any menu.