Predicting the next epidemic…

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.

In some parts of this world the rains predict disease, and a hot, dry, dusty wind is the harbinger of a meningitis outbreak that is yet to come. Now, from where you sit, Google will soon predict the next great epidemic.

At this time of year, ever since that 2009 paper was published on flu trends, seasonal influenza and how we predict it, is a recurring topic.

It seems we are always moments away from the next great flu epidemic. This year saw a novel coronavirus make the rounds. A virus that usually causes nothing more serious and common than a cold, was the source of severe respiratory illnesses in the Middle East, with reported cases coming from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and resulting in 5 fatalities.

The curious case of the novel coronavirus is a new strain of virus that has not been previously identified in humans. The hypothesis is that it jumped the species barrier, but, as of yet, a definitive origin has not been identified.

When a disease will decide to jump the species barrier is hard to predict. Some of the most serious afflictions of humans in recent times have had their origin in animal diseases. HIV/AIDS and ebola being the prime example. Seasonal influenza is another — causing tens of millions of respiratory illnesses and up to half a million deaths worldwide each year.

In mankind’s eternal struggle against disease, as the adage goes, prevention is better than a cure. But how do we prevent disease? How do we mitigate for an oncoming plague or pestilence? A part of this prevention is predicting it.

Currently, we can only really predict an epidemic when it is currently in motion. Hospitalizations are the only way we can really track a disease. When it is possibly already too late. When people are already sick.

In the week the world was supposed to end, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) released its weekly report on influenza surveillance, like it had done since week 40 of this year. The report aggregates data on influenza-like illnesses reported in primary health care facilities, as well as virological and clinical data.

Flu surveillance, in Europe and similarly in the US, is based on nationally organised sentinel networks of physicians, mostly general practitioners (the first person you go see when you’re ill), covering at least 1 to 5% of the population in their countries. Each sentinel physician reports the weekly number of patients seen with influenza-like illnesses and acute respiratory illnesses.

The report is essentially there to tell us when a flu epidemic is going to break out. In week 49, ECDC announced that the season of influenza transmission had begun.

Along with the direct methods of detecting and monitoring disease, in recent years new and innovative non-direct methods have been tested. From sales of over-the-counter medication to online activity. The idea is to try and record health-seeking behaviour… ie before the disease has taken hold in a population.

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas.

Monitoring disease, 140 characters at a time…

Flu is a disease very amenable to being searched and turning up in social media. Health-seeking behaviour — in this day and age, we google every ailment. However, diseases which are more serious probably won’t follow this social pattern.

The concept is essentially trying to “predict the present”. Google flu trends isn’t the only one to mine social data. Mappyhealth mines twitter data, tracking 25 conditions from around 200 health related terms. Searching for the spikes in activity from those certain key terms. Spikes in activity above the social noise, pointing to a significant event associated with the term. In some places it has been shown to be a good indication of the real underlying movement of disease.

But what of diseases that are not as commonplace as the flu? How would google or twitter act as an early warning system for diseases of a tropical nature?

2.5 billion people are living in areas at risk of Dengue fever, otherwise known as breakbone fever — a painful and sometimes fatal viral disease characterized by headache, skin rash and debilitating muscle and joint pains. In some cases, it can lead to circulatory failure, shock, coma and death. There are up to 100 million infections a year — and it’s growing. Incidence and geographic distribution of dengue has gone up in many countries, spurred on by a changing climate.

So how do we predict a disease that is more complicated than simple person to person transmission? What if there is another step to overcome — namely, in the case of dengue, a mosquito? Early warning systems for vector borne diseases are incredibly complex.

Google Dengue aims to do the same thing flu trends did. And the results are remarkably similar. Google search volume for dengue-related queries were able to adequately estimate true the dengue activity and official reported cases. The realisation that disease can be tracked in this manner is a relatively new occurrence. Few have explored non-traditional settings for monitoring epidemics, dengue or otherwise.

The caveat, however, is obvious — a term turning up in a search term doesn’t necessarily point to the presence of the disease. “Now-casting” (as opposed to forecasting) using a web-query based surveillance depends on a few crucial factors. First and foremost is the evident internet availability — and in developing countries this might prove difficult.

Despite its limitations (panic-induced searching from the announcement of a novel outbreak, backed up by media sensationalism), it proves effective and, most importantly, low cost. Up-to-date and accurate estimations of disease lets the health professionals make an effective response to the moving disease. In the case of influenza, where a vaccine is available, it makes sense. In the case of dengue, all that remains is a working vaccine for this method to live up to potential.

Image — sourcesource

Originally appearing in Australian Science

Advertisements

19 Responses to “Predicting the next epidemic…”


  1. 1 bodyhorrors January 11, 2013 at 13:48

    Google Dengue, I had no idea! Great article, Charles.

  2. 2 palm kernels May 1, 2013 at 06:04

    Raw bitter almonds are never used for consumption as it has Amygdalin, a toxin that metabolizes
    to produce hydrogen cyanide. Do this with care, as the juice will stain everything it touches a nice,
    rich brown. One drawback to using sweet almond oil is its
    expense.

  3. 3 Best Acne Treatment With Benzoyl Peroxide May 27, 2013 at 16:52

    Hi there, I found your website via Google while searching for a relevant topic, your
    website showed up, it appears great. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  4. 4 one heart June 2, 2013 at 17:59

    Hi to every one, it’s actually a good for me to pay a quick visit this web page, it includes priceless Information.

  5. 5 click through the up coming website July 9, 2013 at 23:26

    I’ve been browsing online more than three hours today, yet I by no means found any fascinating article like yours. It is lovely worth sufficient for me. In my view, if all site owners and bloggers made just right content material as you probably did, the net might be a lot more helpful than ever before.

  6. 6 Obagi NUderm July 11, 2013 at 10:30

    This website was… how do you say it? Relevant!

    ! Finally I have found something which helped me. Thanks!

  7. 7 online form generator July 17, 2013 at 18:39

    Cheers to your PROFITmatic Turnkey Automated Internet Profit Center,.

    It’s easy to use a fake IP address on i – Phone and i – Pad, but you need to know what you need the fake IP for. The specific combination of reps, sets, exercises, and weight depends upon the desires of the body builder.

  8. 8 online forms July 17, 2013 at 19:39

    Flash web designers will like the cost and the creativity of the
    Trendy Flash Site Builder. It’s a good idea to have separate email promotions for prospects and customers, too, because you typically need to send different information to the different groups. We saw earlier that we could, through links to email addresses, contact directly with an email.

  9. 9 Louise July 18, 2013 at 02:45

    Hi and thanks for the actual blog post ive been recently searching regarding this
    specific advice on-line for sum hours these days. thanks.

  10. 10 online form Builder July 18, 2013 at 08:11

    All they need to do is to enroll with their name, email, contact number and country and vemmabuilder will
    cater to the particular country of the person.
    He knew the system well enough to not pay many of his suppliers
    and sub-contractors, then would cover it up up by handing out
    fake lien releases to make it look like they were
    paid. We saw earlier that we could, through links to email addresses, contact
    directly with an email.

  11. 11 online form generator July 24, 2013 at 23:38

    Those that cannot apply for this kind of card or that would prefer a different
    solution could consider a prepaid card that comes with a credit building element as an alternative.
    Rather, they’re designed to help spark possibilities in your own mind. Once safely at Thebes, though, the obelisks were brought to the temple at Karnak with much fanfare.

  12. 12 fluid marketing scam July 30, 2013 at 13:44

    They don’t know how many times I have won prizes. Tag Manager Resources In short answering these questions ought to help the marketer decide whether to continue with the niche marketing plan, or drop it entirely. I hear every day how people complain about how search marketing little traffic they get to their blog. This is aimed a making sure that the information presented on the site has. Specializing in a niche market is a technique to introduce a secondary colour to update the look and feel of your blog.

  13. 13 http://powerpumpxlblog.org August 5, 2013 at 01:07

    Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it is truly informative.

    I am going to watch out for brussels. I will appreciate if
    you continue this in future. Many people will be benefited from
    your writing. Cheers!

  14. 14 raspberry Ketone hydroxyphenyl August 9, 2013 at 04:46

    I’m really inspired along with your writing talents as well as with the format in your blog. Is this a paid subject matter or did you modify it your self? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s
    rare to look a nice weblog like this one today..

  15. 15 Ulrike August 11, 2013 at 02:17

    My brother suggested I would possibly like this blog. He used to be totally right.

    This post truly made my day. You cann’t imagine simply how so much time I had spent for this info! Thanks!

  16. 16 gain twitter followers free August 22, 2013 at 11:26

    Many thanks every other educational blog site. Where more may perhaps I buy that kind of information designed in such a excellent approach? I’ve got a problem that we’re just now working away at, i have been for the view available to get similarly info.

  17. 17 Favourite Coffee House August 23, 2013 at 15:08

    Someone essentially assist to make significantly articles I would state.
    That is the first time I frequented your web page
    and to this point? I amazed with the analysis you made to create this particular post amazing.
    Wonderful task!


  1. 1 The Contagion of Violence - Australian Science Trackback on March 6, 2013 at 01:05
  2. 2 The Contagion of Violence… | science left untitled Trackback on March 21, 2013 at 20:11
Comments are currently closed.



What had I twaught…


%d bloggers like this: