News & Events

Globe Sept 14 09 Tracking disease globally:

With tools that range from the iPhone to Internet searches, John S. Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, hunts infectious disease. As the Internet and cellphone have become ubiquitous parts of modern life, he hopes that ordinary people can participate in a global health early-alert system. With Clark Freifeld, an MIT graduate student, he developed, which culls online reports of infectious disease and maps them in real time, giving the public a way to keep an eye on swine flu – or the next big outbreak. Here is an edited version of a conversation with the Globe.

Q. Can you explain what HealthMap is?
A. There’s all this incredible information about infectious diseases found on the Web. The idea is we could put all this information into one repository for disease all around the world. We know this could be valuable from the point of view of early detection of emerging threats – we saw this with SARS, where the early reports were coming out of chat rooms, news media articles. We’re putting surveillance data in the hands of the population, which essentially empowers people with data that really has never been available to them.

Q. At any given time, there must be many different diseases reported across the world. What will a pandemic look like online?
A. This is a challenge. We did detect H1N1 very early from Spanish language media, but we can’t really say we were pressing the alarm bell. How do you distinguish something with local impact from a worldwide pandemic? We’re working on ways to identify those types of signatures.

Q. How will you be monitoring the website this fall?
A. I think it’s really important to note that although H1N1 is the major focus of the population and news media, relatively speaking, H1N1 has less impact than many other infectious diseases, so we’re obviously actively looking at other threats too.

Q. You have an iPhone application that can tell people where outbreaks are. Is the idea that people won’t go to those places?
A. This is not meant to alarm people, or get people so scared they’re not going to move around. It’s more of an education tool to help promote the idea of public health prevention.

Q. Are there other ways you’ve noticed that online data can be used to track other things happening in society?
A. We had a recent salmonella outbreak across the US. We saw people were going online early and searching for things like “diarrhea’’ and “food poisoning.’’ So that’s another new way we’re looking at these data sources.

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