HealthMap taps Internet for public health ‘situational awareness’

The Internet can be a source of exaggeration, half-truths and biased information, but it can also be a boon for public health officials who want to keep tabs on disease outbreaks in far-flung countries.

That’s the conclusion of a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston who two years ago developed an automated, real-time Web system called HealthMap. The system gathers information on emerging and ongoing disease outbreaks via listservs, disease reporting networks and online media outlets, and then filters, integrates and classifies that information.

A mapping feature presents all emerging and ongoing outbreaks on a global map. Visitors can click on a local outbreak icon for, say, the current dengue fever epidemic in Yemen to access news reports that provide details on symptoms, treatments and public health efforts.

The site, administered by the Children’s Hospital, is freely available to anyone who wants to know what’s happening in global health.

Frequent visitors include officials at the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), local health departments and traveling medical clinics, in addition to international travelers.

The researchers recently discussed the performance of the system and their continuing challenges in an article published in the July issue of the National Library of Medicine’s Public Library of Science Journal.

“The parts of the world that are most vulnerable to emerging disease threats still lack essential public health information infrastructure,” wrote John Brownstein, lead researcher and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He noted that the earliest indications of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in China were reported not by a health ministry or laboratory network but by a Chinese newspaper.

HealthMap relies on a series of automated algorithms that can mine text to locate disease outbreak reports, collect and analyze those reports, extract disease and location information, eliminate report duplication, and categorize the reports.

The goal, said Brownstein in an interview, is to provide public health and medical personnel with real-time situational awareness of outbreaks prior to formal recognition — without overloading them with information.

“We saw very clearly with the current salmonella outbreak a buildup of articles about it in New Mexico well before we had reports coming out of the CDC,” Brownstein noted. “So the system has utility from the perspective of real-time preparedness.”

About the Author

Heather Hayes is a freelance writer based in Clifford, Va.

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