By Sally Painter,


In a 1972 CIA document titled, “Intelligence Implications of Disease” the 1966-1967 meningitis outbreak in China is described. The epidemic triggered the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) to start Project IMPACT with the mission to devise a methodology for predicting epidemics.


The other leg of the project was to understand how epidemics affect the military and civilian services. In other words, how disruptive could epidemics be to the security of a country and how does it affect infrastructures.


Meningitis Outbreak and Project IMPACT


In December 1966, the Chinese population became ill. It was also a time of political turmoil and unrest as Chairman Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution swept the nation. China was in chaos. Ongoing demonstrations and riots were rampant as Chairman Mao set about transforming China into a communist country.


The epidemic was a true test of infrastructures and an ideal setting for Project IMPACT. The report released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) states that the political chaos in the streets was “one of the best ingredients for a successful epidemic”. The interaction and unchecked movement of people spread the bacteria faster than normal.


The city of Canton appeared to be ground zero. In the beginning, the project suffered since China had no monitoring system set-up. There was no hard quantifiable data.


In fact, the epidemic reporting simply referred to “many sick and dying” and “many dead”. Such generalizations made it impossible to evaluate the progression of the disease. Even when schools were closed, there was no data to reflect if it was a precautionary measure or the result of school children becoming sick.


The progression of the disease struck the Red Guards (young people’s movement of Mao’s People’s Republic of China) and they took control of the hospitals to ensure their troops were treated. This was the first sign of infrastructure breakdown.


Another factor that quickened the spread of infection was the uncontrolled movement of over 900,00 cultural exchange visitors who’d traveled through Canton and were exposed to the bacteria. The visitors moved through the country spreading the disease faster than it would have moved under normal circumstances.


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06.03.2013 (320 days ago)
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How the 1966 China Meningitis Outbreak Led to a CIA Epidemic Prediction System