Last year's Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people. The pandemic may be diminished, but public health officials think another major outbreak of infectious disease is fast-approaching, and they’re busy preparing for it.
Public radio station WGBH partnered with The GroundTruth Project and NOVA Next on a series called “Next Outbreak.” As part of the series, they reported on an innovative global online monitoring system called HealthMap, which uses the power of the internet and crowdsourcing to detect and track emerging infectious diseases, and also more common ailments like the flu.
Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital are the ones behind HealthMap, and they use it to tap into tens of thousands of sources of online data, including social media, news reports and blogs to curate information about outbreaks. Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and co-founder of HealthMap, says smarter data collection can help to quickly detect and track emerging infectious diseases, fatal or not.
“Traditional public health is really slowed down by the communication process: People get sick, they’re seen by healthcare providers, they get laboratory confirmed, information flows up the channels to state and local health [agencies], national governments, and then to places like the WHO,” says Dr. Brownstein. “Each one of those stages can take days, weeks or even months, and that’s the problem if you’re thinking about a virus that can spread around the world in a matter of days.”
The HealthMap team looks at a variety of communication channels to undo the existing hierarchy of health information.
“We make everyone a stakeholder when it comes to data about outbreaks, including consumers,” says Brownstein. “There are a suite of different tools that public health officials have at their disposal. What we’re trying to do is think about how to communicate and empower individuals to really understand what the risks are, what the true information is about a disease event and what they can do to protect themselves and their families. It’s all about trying to demystify outbreaks.”
In addition to the map itself, the HealthMap team has a number of interactive tools that individuals can both use and contribute to. Brownstein hopes these resources will enable the public to care more about disease outbreaks that may be happening around them — it’s a way to put the “public” back in “public health,” he says.
“We have an app called Outbreaks Near Me that allows people to know about what disease outbreaks are happening in their neighborhood,” he adds. “Flu Near You is a an app that people use to self report on symptoms; Vaccine Finder is a tool that allows people to know what vaccines are available to them in their community.”
In addition to developing their own app, HealthMap has partnered with existing tech firms like Uber to spread the word about public health.
“We worked closely with Uber last year and actually put nurses in Uber cars and delivered vaccines to people,” Brownstein says. “The closest vaccine location might still be only a block away for people, but people are still hesitant to get it done.”
Though HealthMap researchers have more tools to track outbreaks, they’re still concerned about infectious diseases.
“One of the limitations to digital disease collection is that it does require a tremendous amount of Internet penetration,” says Maia Majumder, a research fellow at HealthMap and a graduate student at MIT. “It’s terrific for a country like the United States. I think when the next swine flu hits the US, we might be better equipped because HealthMap does a tremendous job at spreading information about how the public can actually take care of their own health.”
While citizens of more industrialized societies like the United States may be empowered to use tools like HealthMap, others who lack access to changing technologies appear to be out of luck. At least for now.
“When it comes to emerging infectious pathogens, especially in developing countries, I think that we’re on the right path,” says Majumder. “The increased amount of Internet penetration is definitely helping along the way, but without Internet penetration it’s a lot harder to communicate these good education tools to a larger populus.”
This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation. This is part of a series that includes this piece on efforts to hold governments accountable.