Friday, October 16, 2009

Detecting the next pandemic, online

In this day and age of international disease outbreaks, we’ve all heard about some terrifying conditions, and grown reasonably familiar with their names. And we probably feel especially thankful that someone else has the job of identifying and tracking down the sources of such outbreaks, then curing the afflicted, hopefully without contracting the scourge themselves or bringing it home to us.

Who are some of these public health Sherlocks? Here’s a pop quiz to help: Who was the first to report the following outbreaks: Ebola virus in Zaire in 1995, West Nile virus in the US in 1999, SARS in China in 2002, and H5N1 (avian) influenza in Indonesia in 2003. Was it, a. The World Health Organization, b. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, c. The United Nations, d. Surveillance experts from Johns Hopkins and Oxford University, or e. Some web-based surveillance system that you’ve never heard of. If you answered “e” you are correct. But don’t feel bad, many professors at schools of public health, and most public health graduate students probably couldn’t name the network in question.

Run by the International Society for Infectious Disease, was established in 1994 as a listserv to enhance communication between members of an international working group. Today it is a free, non-profit international infectious disease surveillance system open to anyone with web access. Reports are sent directly to the site by reporters around the world, as well as being culled from a published health reports by staff. All posts are reviewed for accuracy and relevance before they are published online. Unlike typical surveillance systems, in which information travels up a hierarchy and must be deemed of significant importance before eventually reaching the international community, promedmail is nonhierarchical, allowing for direct, rapid reporting of new disease cases. As the case counts grow, locations of potential new outbreaks are quickly and easily identified.

The site also uses Google Maps to plot the location of outbreak reports. The picture on the left, for example, flags all the reports of H1N1 in the past 30 days. The sheer simplicity and efficiency of this health reporting tool is likely what has led to its sustainability and success: In addition to being reliable, globally accessible, constantly updated and available in 8 languages, information is easy to read and well linked to supporting materials.

I dare say its even a fun read. Try it yourself: Visit the site, and read about the most recent reports of plague, anthrax or Marburg Fever. Just remember that this isn’t good bedtime reading, and whatever you do, don’t look the disease up in Google Images.

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