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article imageVirtual disease surveillance: Healthmap plots outbreaks around the world

By Paul Wallis     Jul 19, 2008 in Science
Now here’s a first. Healthmap is able to produce a map of disease incidences, around the world, and track, in real time, about 95% of them. That’s a lot faster than existing systems, and could be a huge asset if there’s ever a global pandemic.
Discovery News:
Every hour, HealthMap, an infectious disease-tracking Web site, culls through news Web sites, public health list servs, the World Health Organization's online pages, and other Web sites in six different languages to pinpoint outbreaks of disease that real-world doctors can then act on.
"We were originally thinking about how we could expand disease surveillance and pick up outbreaks earlier than traditional methods," said John Brownstein of Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston, who created HealthMap in September of 2006 with Clark Friefeld, a software developer at Harvard Medical School.
This started off as a sort of hobby. Google, however, spotted it, and picked it up. The system is ahead of WHO and national disease centers, by days. There’s no lack of uses for this thing, either:
"This will definitely save lives," said Larry Madoff, editor of ProMED, an infectious disease monitoring Web site run by the International Society for Infectious Disease.
"This is a good step forward," said Madoff. "[HealthMap] helps us predict how disease outbreaks will happen."
ProMed, unlike HealthMap, uses human moderators, not mathematical algorithms, who specialize in geographic regions or specific areas of disease to identify public health outbreaks.
HealthMap isn't just for doctors, specialists and public health officials, however. If travelers are heading to Paraguay they can see if there is an instance of Yellow Fever, for instance, and get vaccinated before they leave.
In terms of epidemiology, the ability to track a physical location of outbreaks is nothing less than invaluable.
It allows medical services to project epidemic spread, points of transfer, and correlate with resource management and logistics. It also allows some quick calculations regarding population density, and statistical analyses of likely numbers relative to infections. If a disease has a 1 in 10 infection rate per head, and the area has 1 million people, you can expect 100,000 cases, and plan accordingly.
The map itself is to put it mildly interesting. However, you’ll notice that the US is shown as one of the most heavily infested areas on Earth. That’s mainly because the reporting of outbreaks and number of sources of information is much greater.
Unless they’re monitoring network media buying patterns… in which case the place has a real problem.
More about Healthmap, Epidemiology, Harvard medical school
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