Tracking outbreaks online


Are you looking to read reviews about the new Greek restaurant that opened up down the street? Google it. In an argument about who drove in the final runs in the Red Sox’s 2004 world series run? Google is right there to let you know it was Trot Nixon. While most of us use Google for seemingly trivial purposes, (I know Sox fans, ’04 was anything BUT trivial in your eyes) researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston are using the powerful search engine to fight disease.

John Brownstein, PhD

A team from the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP), led by John Brownstein, PhD, put their heads together with people from Google and found that web-based search data is a great info sharing source for citizens and public health officials alike. With this in mind, the team recently turned their attention towards tracking outbreaks of dengue, a mosquito-borne virus affecting 500 million people living in tropical parts of the globe. To help accurately record dengue outbreaks as they occur, CHIP and Google have created an online tool called Denguetrends, which collects information on dengue activity as it occurs in real time. The advantage of this type of data aggregation is that it warns people when dengue is being reported in their area and gives public health officials the chance to immediately respond to outbreaks as they happen, instead of waiting for data to be collected and processed. Its creators hope the tool will lead to faster response times and more efficient management of dengue outbreaks.

“By using search data, we’re tapping into a freely-available, instant dataset that can be gathered, analyzed and released much more quickly and at much lower effort and cost than through traditional national surveillance and reporting programs,” said Brownstein, director of the Computational Epidemiology Group in CHIP. “The kind of information the tool provides can help direct public health officials target interventions aimed at mosquito control and disease prevention, such as education campaigns, as early as possible.”

Taking this concept to a more local level, CHIP has also recently developed the Flu Near You app, which provides a comprehensive real-time visualization of flu activity, news and other resources.

Flu Near You is currently a contestant in the CDC Flu App Challenge, which encourages developers to come up with new, tech-savvy ways to raise awareness and educate people about the flu, flu outbreaks and its treatment. Winners in the contest will be awarded funding to grow and improve their application. Please help Dr. Brownstein and his team keep up the great work by voting for Flu Near You. Simply click here to visit the CDC Flu App Challenge page, and click on the red vote button on the right.

Harnessing the power of the internet to track and educate people about heath is the goal of the Brownstein’s Computational Epidemiology Group, and the team is hopeful that collaborations like their partnership with Google can one day evolve the traditional paradigm of public health practice and surveillance. In addition to DengueMap and Flu Near You, the group has successfully used new technologies to identify and describe the emergence of West Nile virus in New York City using satellite data, predicted patterns of Lyme disease based on climate change and help describe the impact of pollution on chronic disease. As technologies available to the general public continue to advance, so will CHIP’s understanding of how they can be used to benefit public health.