The Digital World's Response to Outbreaks
Dec 20, 2013, 11:27 AM
Outbreaks can spread faster than you think. But luckily the development of new digital tools and technologies to assist with documenting, tracking and alerting the public of the spread of infectious disease is progressing even more rapidly. There are new databases, maps and communications technologies that make tracking down an outbreak and getting it under control a much quicker and more efficient process. Digital developments focusing on emergency preparedness and response can help protect more of the population from the next pandemic.
We’ve brought together a few examples of how the digital world is working to improve emergency response:
- At the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, a new initiative called Project Tycho is working to convert 125 years worth of data from paper documents into an open-access database. Project Tycho will save researchers around the world the time of finding reliable historical data from different sources for infectious diseases, which is critical to understanding underlying epidemic dynamics, according to Dr. Willem van Panhuis, an assistant professor of epidemiology at University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.
- The Advanced Molecular Detection Initiative proposed in the President’s 2014 Budget could help make huge strides in controlling infectious disease. The initiative would bring together experts in laboratory science, epidemiology and bioinformatics to join forces like never before. By using genetic sequencing to examine infectious pathogens, these technologies are on the verge of revolutionizing medical professionals’ abilities to diagnose infectious diseases; investigate and control outbreaks; understand transmission patterns; develop and target vaccines; and determine antimicrobial resistance—all with increased timeliness and accuracy and decreased costs.
- Social media and crowdsourcing technologies have helped medical professionals develop tools to track the spread of disease and where outbreaks are occurring and even make the data available to the general public. HealthMap is one of the original examples of using digital technologies to track outbreaks while keeping the public informed.
- In efforts to spread the skills needed to deal with public health issues such as outbreaks, the CDC has made learning more fun through games such and applications such as CDCology and Solve the Outbreak for the iPad. CDCology is a pilot program through the CDC and supported by HHSIgnite (beta). The pilot website uses CDC staff-created, student-solved, virtual microtasks to tackle public health challenges at CDC. As they complete the short microtasks, the students gain valuable educational experience, insight and exposure to the field of public health. Solve the Outbreak puts you in the shoes of a member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service. Playing the game presents the opportunities to use clues, analyze data, solve the scenario and save lives in this virtual world, but also helps teach the public more about the process behind handling a real outbreak.
This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.