Researchers envision better disease surveillance to improve public health

Jul 13, 2010

With current public health threats ranging from swine flu to bioterrorism to environmental contamination, innovations that better predict disease outbreaks have vast potential to protect the public. In a paper published online in advance of print on July 6 in Emerging Health Threats Journal, public health researchers describe their vision for the future of disease surveillance, detailing innovations on the horizon that may facilitate earlier detection and improved public health preparedness.

"Advances in identifying and gathering data, techniques for combining and processing that data, and technologies that enable deeper data analysis will facilitate a new paradigm in outbreak definition and detection. Our goal is to develop data analysis tools that can accurately determine both the probability that an outbreak will occur and its predicted severity," said co-author Elena Naumova, PhD, professor of and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM).

"There are many obstacles to improving tools for disease surveillance. Varying definitions of what constitutes an outbreak, differences in the quality and source of data, and differences in how quickly diseases progress and spread - all of these are realities that make it challenging to accurately and efficiently predict an outbreak," said Naumova.

In the current study, Naumova and co-author Nina Fefferman, PhD, describe cutting-edge methods that address these obstacles and have the potential to revolutionize the way disease data is processed and analyzed. Fefferman is an assistant professor in the department of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at Rutgers University as well as a research assistant professor in the department of public health and community medicine at TUSM.

"There is vast, untapped potential in the multitude of new data streams made available by technological progress. Data can be submitted instantly from the site of an outbreak investigation, it can be gleaned from websites and news items, it can be obtained from satellite images; our current methods, however, are not up to the challenge of tapping and appropriately analyzing these sources. New techniques are being developed that will dramatically shorten the time it will take us to detect an outbreak," said Fefferman.

"Dynamic mapping, multivariate visualization, flow mapping, outbreak signature forecasting, and large-scale simulations of infection spread are just a few of the tools being developed that might help us better detect the complexities of disease spread. These data analysis tools present huge data sets in such a way that researchers can better detect and interpret trends and anomalies," said Naumova.

"Additionally, we can gain further insight into an outbreak if auxiliary information related to the population is readily available. By including information about demographics, population migration and travel patterns, vaccination patterns, and large social gatherings, we can factor in the many contributors to an outbreak," said Fefferman.

According to the researchers, taking this auxiliary information into account will allow public health researchers to adjust their analyses by population, perhaps examining areas with limited vaccination coverage, or higher proportions of older adults, or heavy traffic from airports and tourism.

"Our hope is that improved tools will help us detect the unique signature of each outbreak, and as a result improve our ability to recognize the warning signs early and with greater accuracy," said Naumova.

Explore further: Mali announces new Ebola case

More information: Fefferman NH, Naumova EN. Emerging Health Threats Journal. 2010. "Innovation in Observation: A Vision for Early Outbreak Detection." Published online July 6, 2010, doi: 10.3134/ehtj.10.006

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mathematics might save you a trip to the ER

Sep 12, 2007

Since the days of Hippocrates, people have known that certain illnesses come and go with the seasons. More recently, researchers have learned that these cyclic recurrences of disease, known as seasonality, are often related ...

Weather, stomach bugs and climate change: Refining the model

Jun 04, 2008

Monitoring extreme weather, such as periods of high temperature, is one way to predict the timing and intensity of infectious diseases like cryptosporidiosis, an intestinal disease that causes upset stomach and diarrhea. ...

Dynamic maps aid epidemiological investigations

Jan 19, 2010

A team of researchers has developed a dynamic mapping tool to gain a more nuanced view of the links between diseases and environmental exposures. The application of the method is illustrated by a number of examples of associations ...

Using biostatistics to detect disease outbreaks

Jul 15, 2008

An internationally recognised authority in biostatistics, Harvard University Professor Louise Ryan, is working with CSIRO researchers to help improve the way statistics are used to detect disease outbreaks ...

Recommended for you

Can robots help stop the Ebola outbreak?

2 hours ago

The US military has enlisted a new germ-killing weapon in the fight against Ebola—a four-wheeled robot that can disinfect a room in minutes with pulses of ultraviolet light.

New bird flu case in Germany

2 hours ago

A worrying new strain of bird flu has been observed for the first time in a wild bird in northern Germany, the agriculture ministry said Saturday.

Mali announces new Ebola case

Nov 22, 2014

Mali announced Saturday a new case of Ebola in a man who is fighting for his life in an intensive care unit in the capital Bamako.

Plague outbreak kills 40 in Madagascar: WHO

Nov 22, 2014

An outbreak of plague has killed 40 people in Madagascar, the World Health Organization said, warning that the disease could spread rapidly in the country's densely populated capital Antananarivo.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.