Map Diseases in Your Area with HealthMap
This guest post was written by Jane Huston, a program coordinator for HealthMap at Boston Children’s Hospital and manager of the HealthMap Vaccine Finder, a project that aims to increase adult immunization by making it easy to find recommended vaccines. Jane received a Master’s of Public Health from Boston University.
An elementary school alerts parents to a student with whooping cough by posting an announcement to its school website. A healthcare worker in China posts a picture to a micro-blogging website confirming a new case of influenza H7N9 that was previously uncounted. The WHO releases an online statement regarding suspected cases of polio in Syria for the first time in 14 years.
All of the above are examples of both the formal and informal online early warning signals collected by HealthMap in an attempt to understand and track infectious disease outbreaks around the world.
HealthMap and Digital Disease Detection
The HealthMap system uses an automated process to search the web for mentions of infectious disease, every hour on the hour. When we find a disease mentioned, whether it’s in a news story, blog post, or official report, the system can “parse,” or interpret the text to determine 1.) the disease in question, 2.) the country or state where the outbreak is occurring, and 3.) the species affected. HealthMap tracks human and animal diseases, as well as some plant disease. The system can also use this parsed information to decide how important the story is, and if it should be displayed on the public map. For instance, a whooping cough outbreak in Ohio? Pin it to the map! New research about a possible risk factor for a rare kidney disease? Interesting, but not exactly outbreak-related, so not on the map.
All of this is done automatically using digital tools, with human curators periodically correcting mistakes (Bieber fever? Not so relevant) or adding additional information such as case counts and location tags like “school” or “healthcare facility”. This automation allows HealthMap to monitor a staggering number of diseases, locations, and animals. We currently track over 4800 disease patterns in 220 species in countries all over the world. The result of this process is displayed on healthmap.org as a unified view of infectious disease outbreaks around the world.
Why do we need digital disease detection?
Traditional public health departments and agencies detect and investigate infectious disease outbreaks in a methodical and hierarchical manner- a person feels sick, they may visit a doctor or healthcare provider, who may alert the local health department if he or she is concerned about an outbreak or notices something unusual. The health department gathers more information by interviewing other sick people or potentially exposed people. Local health authorities inform the state health officials and perhaps even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency tasked with protecting the nation’s health. The system carefully investigates potential outbreaks at each stage, so the information is very reliable- but it tends to take time. There are also opportunities all along the way for cases or outbreaks to remain undetected. How many unusual cases of illness does a doctor see before they call the health department? How many people recover at home, without ever being counted?
In the emerging field of digital epidemiology, or digital disease detection, we seek to use new and unique data sources from online and mobile technology to track disease. Digital disease detection systems are complementary to traditional surveillance methods, and do not replace them. We focus on early detection, or finding out about an outbreak as soon as possible. The rise in digital methods and informal sources outlined above has coincided with a drop in time to outbreak discovery from 24 weeks in 1996 to just under three weeks in 2010. Continued development of digital tools can help accelerate outbreak discovery even further.
How can you use HealthMap?
HealthMap has proven useful for researchers and for public health officials, but as a freely available, public website, many other groups are using it too. HealthMap is a great tool to keep a finger on the pulse of disease in your town or community.
The map view defaults to show alerts in your location (automatically detected via your computer’s IP address) within the past week, but you can play around with the advanced search by clicking on the search button in the upper left corner. You can view reports of specific diseases of interest, or focus on a specific state or country- perhaps the destination of your upcoming vacation. There are preset map views (under Saved Searches) that you might find useful, such as U.S. influenza reports or outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases.
You can also sign up to receive regular emails to notify you of alerts relevant to you. To create a free account, visit healthmap.org and click “Log in” in the bottom right corner and then “Register.”
If you know of an outbreak that has not yet been added to the map, be the first to report it using our unique, crowd-sourced reporting mechanism. Click the “add alerts” symbol (+) on the map and provide a link to a news story, or details of an outbreak you observed personally. You will be credited and your report will be featured on the HealthMap site and app to warn others in the area. Think of yourself as a digital disease detective, helping protect the health of your friends, family, and neighbors.