Maimuna (Maia) Majumder is an engineering systems PhD student at MIT and computational epidemiology research fellow at HealthMap.
The 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak in the United States, which started in late December and spread to more than 100 people in just 6 weeks, has recently become the subject of substantial media scrutiny.
Measles is extremely infectious, exhibiting a basic reproductive number between 12 and 18—one of the highest recorded in history. This means that for every 1 case who gets sick in a totally susceptible population, 12 to 18 other folks get sick, too. Thankfully, when uptake of the measles vaccine is high enough in a given community, it’s almost impossible for the disease to spread—thus halting a potential outbreak in its tracks.
But what happens when vaccine rates aren’t high enough? …
A virus transmitted by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, dengue is a flu-like illness characterized by a high fever and severe joint pain, sometimes with hemorrhagic manifestations. There are four distinct serotypes of the virus (DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3, DEN-4). Recovery from one infection provides lifelong protection from a homologous (same-strain) infection and partial temporary protection from the other strains. However, subsequent heterologous (different-strain) infection increases the risk of severe dengue manifestations. …
Sobering news keeps coming out of the West African Ebola outbreak. According to numbers released on August 6, the virus has sickened 1,711 and claimed 932 lives across four nations. The outbreak continues to grow, with a high risk of continued regional spread, according to a threat analysis released by HealthMap (an outbreak tracking system operated out of Boston Children’s Hospital) and Bio.Diaspora (a Canadian project that monitors communicable disease spread via international travel).
“What we’ve seen here—because of inadequate public health measures, because of general fear—is [an outbreak that] truly hasn’t been kept under control,” John Brownstein, PhD, co-founder of HealthMap and a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told ABC News. “The event started, calmed down and jumped up again. Now, we’re seeing movement into densely populated areas, which is highly concerning.”
If you’re interested in keeping tabs on the outbreak yourself, there are several tools that can help. …
Elaine Nsoesie, PhD, is a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital’s HealthMap, Harvard Medical School and Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. In this post, which originally appeared on HealthMap’s Disease Daily, Nsoesie looks at the trend of detecting disease digitally by monitoring mentions on social media. She delves into one of the major limitations of this technique—namely telling those who are curious about a disease apart from those who actually have it.
There are plenty of studies about tracking diseases (such as influenza) using digital data sources, which is awesome! However, many of these studies focus solely on matching the trends in the digital data sources (for example, searches on disease-related terms, or how frequently certain disease-related terms are mentioned on social media over time, etc.) to data from official sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although this approach is useful in telling us about the possible utility of these data, there are several limitations. One of the main limitations is the difficulty in distinguishing between data generated by healthy individuals and individuals who are actually sick. In other words, how can we tell whether someone who searches Google or Wikipedia for influenza is sick or just curious about the flu?
You wake up feeling like someone has taken a jackhammer to your head. You’re feverish, aching all over and your stomach is doing somersaults. There’s no doubt about it: You have the flu.
You also have reservations for dinner tonight. So after a mug of tea and an ibuprofen, you grope for your phone and cancel the reservations you’d made through OpenTable.
That cancellation might be a signal to public health officials of a flu outbreak. Because, according to a study by HealthMap’sJohn Brownstein, PhD, and Elaine Nsoesie, PhD, reservation data from OpenTable could offer another view into the seasonal spread of the flu. …
Disease surveillance has long been the purview of state public health departments, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies that collect reports from doctors, clinics and laboratories.
That disease control model is being turned on its head by projects like Boston Children’s Hospital’s HealthMap, which scours the web for information related to disease outbreaks. HealthMap’s Flu Near You goes a step further by encouraging people to report their own flu-related symptoms and help track flu emergence and spread.
To date, though, efforts like these have been limited to the digital sphere—part of the growing field of digital epidemiology. They don’t rely on blood, spit and mucus to get their data—it’s all in bits and based solely on symptoms.
But even that is changing, thanks to a new Flu Near You initiative called GoViral. GoViral brings everyone directly into the flu surveillance process by allowing them to not just report how they’re feeling, but to test themselves for flu at home and submit their results. …
“Since the  SARS outbreak, the world has seen substantial progress in transparency and rapid reporting. The extent of these advancements varies, but overall, digital disease surveillance is providing the global health community with tools supporting faster response and deeper understanding of emerging public health threats.”
In the blockbuster Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow travels to Hong Kong on business and returns to suburban Minneapolis with flu-like symptoms. Within days she is dead. Paltrow is the index case in a pandemic that sweeps across the world. Contagion is a dramatic example of how a series of mundane, every day activities—such as shaking hands, drinking from a glass and blowing on dice for good luck—can rapidly and effectively spread disease.
Starting Friday, this year’s summer Olympics will kick off in London, the international hub of Europe. Can you imagine the potential for disease spread in a city that will host ten million athletes and tourists from all over the world? …
In his essay, “We, the Web Kids,” Polish poet and pundit Piotr Czerski writes: “We don’t use the Internet…we live on the Internet and along it…communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.”
As Czerski emphasizes, we want the option of “here and now, without waiting for the file to download.” We (myself included) expect immediacy. So in my role as a public health advocate in the digital age, waiting for an official infectious disease outbreak report to come weeks after the outbreak started—as often happens with traditional reporting methods—is unacceptable. Earlier detection of disease outbreaks means earlier response—and more lives saved. This video produced by NPR illustrates the “web kid” mindset when it comes to public health:
It was after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake that mobile-friendly social media services like Twitter and Ushahidi came into their own as disaster management and relief tools. With the nation’s already unsteady infrastructure destroyed, these tools helped speed the deployment of people and supplies to where they were needed by giving relief workers on-the-ground intelligence about what was happening, what was needed and where in nearly real time.