By the time the World Health Organization learned of an Ebola outbreak sparked in December 2013, when a bat likely transmitted the virus to a child playing in a tree, nearly four months had passed and the disease had spread across three countries in West Africa.
In the process of the response that followed, information that could help project where and how the outbreak would spread was necessary but limited, an article in Clinical Infectious Diseases notes. The article’s authors studied more than 50 internet reports from journalism and public health sources to analyze 79 Ebola outbreak clusters involving 286 people to show how real time news can project, back up and add to information gathered through formal epidemiological surveillance.
The authors, who include Dr. Gerardo Chowell of Georgia State University School of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health Fogarty Center, screened 624 New York Times articles, 781 Washington Post articles, 60 World Health Organization “Stories from the Field on Ebola,” and 90 WHO online reports published between March 2014 and March 2015, as well as 211 articles from the independent media project Ebola Deeply, published on that outlet’s site between Oct. 2014 and March 2015. Of those, they selected 21 articles and two videos from the Times site, six articles from the Post, 16 from WHO, and six from Ebola Deeply.
Researchers reviewed cases described in the articles, and classified patients’ exposures to the virus as having occurred through household members, health settings, care-giving, contact with waste, sexual contact or unknown means. They found the most frequent source of exposure was through family members. They saw the rate of exposures in hospital settings rise to its height early after recognition of the outbreak, in April 2014, and then decline. Illnesses resulting from exposure to the virus at funerals were at their highest rate that June and July, and then dropped. By the time an international response began to gear up in August 2014, most exposures to the virus were happening in households, the analysis found. Researchers noted that health workers were more likely to be treated in hospitals or Ebola centers, and that of 46 health workers whose cases were described, only seven transmitted the virus to others.
Their findings agreed with epidemiological surveillance data from the West Africa and previous outbreaks, the authors say, and reinforce the potential for news reports to yield information that can be used to assess transmission patterns during an outbreak and ahead of formally collected data.
For more on “Characterizing Ebola Transmission Patterns based on Internet News Reports,” click here.