The recent Ebola outbreak has brought the the tracking and containment of infectious disease to the forefront of global consciousness. Indeed, tracking and monitoring the spread of disease is one of public health’s most important (and oldest) tasks. Ever since John Snow removed the handle from the Broad Street pump his hand-drawn maps indicated were at the center of a Cholera outbreak, epidemiologists have appreciated the importance of effective mapping tools. Modern online resources build upon this tradition. This post illustrates some of the best cutting-edge, publicly available mapping tools being used to track infectious diseases.
The best of the comprehensive trackers, Healthmap.org, is a project of Boston Children’s hospital. The site automatically compiles data from a broad range of sources (e.g. WHO, Google News, and PROMed Mail), displaying reports of disease on a map of the world. It also features a fascinating Ebola timeline, showing the progression of the epidemic (including a map overlay showing Ebola’s zoonotic niche).
Unlike most sites on this list, OpenStreetMap is not merely conveying information to users. Rather it is a forum encouraging visitors to assist in mapping areas in Ebola-affected areas in order to increase service delivery. Users input details of roads, landmarks, etc. surrounding Ebola clinics, Ebola-affected areas, etc. which are then used to help those on the ground to better respond to the disease. Emergency and Disaster Information Service http://hisz.rsoe.hu/alertmap/index2.php
Operated by the Hungarian National Association of Radio Distress-Signalling and Infocommunications, the Emergency and Disaster Information Service (EDIS) shows a map of the world identifying a wide variety of threats to human health and safety. A related site, http://outbreaks.globalincidentmap.com/home.php illustrates new incidence of infectious disease, although the latter is focused more on possible terrorism (including bioterrorism).
With influenza season soon to begin, CDC’s FluView dashboard is one of the best resources for tracking the disease’s spread in the United States. The tracker allows viewers to examine the spread of each influenza strain, state-by-state spread, the overall number of hospitalizations for influenza-like illness (ILI), and much more.
Google Flu Trends http://www.google.org/flutrends/
Also influenza specific, Google has developed a website to track the frequency of certain search terms, using this to approximate the level of influenza in a population. Unlike CDC’s data, it is available for countries beyond the United States. The methodology behind Google’s approach is available here. While its data have been criticized for frequently overestimating the level of influenza in a population, they can suggest trend lines, and may be particularly useful when combined with other sources of data (such as that from CDC).
Another website, Flu Near You, uses information provided weekly by registered users to gauge the spread of influenza in a population and provides a map of places in which symptoms have been reported.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.