Online Tool Predicted Ebola Outbreak Before WHO Announcement

August 11, 2014 in News

An online disease tracking tool called HealthMap predicted the Ebola outbreak in West Africa nine days before the World Health Organization formally announced the epidemic, AP/Politico reports.

This year’s Ebola outbreak is the largest and longest ever recorded for the disease, affecting individuals in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. So far, it has killed more than 950 people (AP/Politico, 8/9).

Background on HealthMap

In 2006, researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School developed the automated, real-time Web-based system, which collects data on disease outbreaks through:

  • Disease reporting networks;
  • Listservs (iHealthBeat, 7/21/08);
  • Government websites;
  • Online media outlets; and
  • Social media (AP/Politico, 8/9).

The tool then filters, integrates and classifies those data. A mapping feature displays emerging and ongoing disease outbreaks on a global map.

The site is administered by Children’s Hospital and is available to the public at no cost. Frequent visitors to the site include officials at WHO, CDC, local health departments and traveling medical clinics, as well as international travelers (iHealthBeat, 7/21/08).

Ebola Prediction

According to AP/Politico, HealthMap flagged a “mystery hemorrhagic fever” in forested areas of southeastern Guinea nine days before WHO announced the epidemic proportions of Ebola’s presence in the region (AP/Politico, 8/9).

HealthMap Co-founder John Brownstein said, “In many parts of the world, we’re dealing with limited public health infrastructure, so in many cases, some the information coming from these social networks, from local news stories is the first time that we know about an event that’s unfolding.” He added that such sources “are actually helping us understand events on the ground very early on — sometimes earlier than public health can identify these things” (Pasquantonio, “The Rundown,” PBS Newshour, 8/10).

Lawmakers Hear Surveillance System Arguments

In related news, experts last week testified before a House subcommittee that the Ebola outbreak highlights the need for a global, interoperable system that detects and monitors disease outbreaks in real time, Health Data Management reports.

The emergency hearing was held Aug. 7 by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.

CDC Director Tom Frieden told lawmakers that a disease “outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere.”

He added, “One of the reasons we’ve focused on the Global Health Security Agenda program is that we have the international health regulations which require countries to report outbreaks in new diseases so that we can all as a global community work together, because it’s in all of our best interests” (Slabodkin, Health Data Management, 8/11).

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