With social media, cell phone logs, online news reports and electronic medical records, researchers say, “big data” is getting bigger, and can go where traditional infectious disease surveillance can’t . . .
The more that was learned about how and where Ebola was spreading during the 2014-2015 crisis in West Africa, the more quickly it was contained, with infections stemming from exposure at funerals and in hospitals peaking early on, and declining as the patterns became known, an article in a Journal of Infectious Diseases supplement notes this week.
But with the traditional means of gaining that knowledge far slower than the rate at which the disease was spreading, the cost was high. So, in a decade that has seen outbreaks of Zika, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, SARS, pandemic flu, and the spread of antimicrobial resistance outpace responses, epidemiologists are increasingly taking a lesson from meteorologists and marketers and widening their scope of sources. The result, the authors of the lead article in the series note, is “the dawning of the big-data era in infectious diseases.”
Even the definition of big data is growing, they write, highlighting how health insurance records of U.S. patients seeking care for flu-like symptoms aligned with reports of the illness tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, how cell phone logs can link travel and disease transmission, and how internet search term surges can indicate an emerging public health issue faster than physicians’ reports.
In West Africa, the article Elucidating Transmission Patterns from Internet Reports: Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome as Case Studies points out, while information from detailed contact tracing efforts during the Ebola outbreak remains scarce more than two years later, online news and informational reports provided information that has been validated since. Future use of online reports could be improved with more technologically sophisticated tools to “scour” internet and social media platforms. The authors, led by Gerardo Chowell of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, note, news reports and other online sources come with their own limitations, including greater coverage of sensational and large scale events and anecdotes. Still, they write, the picture pieced together from internet-based information, was “well in line” with the statistics that followed.