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Ecologists call for global early warning system for infectious diseases

May. 20, 2016



Writer: Lori Quillen, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Lori Quillen

Contact: Barbara Han, hanb@caryinstitute.org, John Drake, jdrake@uga.edu


A global early warning system for infectious diseases
Technologically possible, data-driven, and worthy of our investment

In the recent issue of EMBO reports, Barbara Han of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and John Drake of the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology call for the creation of a global early warning system for infectious diseases. Such a system would use computer models to tap into environmental, epidemiological and molecular data, gathering the intelligence needed to forecast where disease risk is high and what actions could prevent outbreaks or contain epidemics.

An early warning system would shift the infectious disease paradigm from reactive – where first responders scramble to contain active threats, as in the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks – to pre-emptive management of risk. Infectious disease intelligence could assess vulnerabilities based on the ebb and flow of risk in real-time, and inform targeted responses that minimize damages.

“For far too long our main strategy for tackling infectious disease has been defense after emergence, when a lot of people are already suffering,” Han explained, “We are at an exciting point in time where technology and Big Data present us with another option, one that is anticipatory and has real potential to improve global health security.”

Han and Drake propose that a three-tiered system with “watches,” "warnings” and “emergencies”—like that used for severe weather alerts—would help decision makers and the public to make more informed decisions. They explain, “Much of the destructive potential of infectious diseases stems from the fact that they often strike unexpectedly, leaving little time for preparation. The best countermeasure is therefore an early warning to give affected regions or communities more time to prepare for the impact.”

Machine learning methods have already proven successful at mining data from multiple sources to identify animal species that are likely to carry disease and geographic hotspots vulnerable to outbreaks of specific pathogens. Scaling up this effort to create a tool for global health authorities will require an increase in the stream of data available for modeling, investment in a quantitative workforce, and open dialogue among academic modelers and decision makers.

Data sharing is essential. Han explains, “Accurately predicting potential outbreaks and guiding effective responses relies on rapidly assimilating data from multiple sources to identify trigger conditions in real time. Ironically, in this age of Big Data, one of the few remaining hard limits on our forecasting ability is the volume and quality of basic scientific information. We can’t collect data on everything – yet – but, we are getting a better sense of the kinds of data that would be the most useful.”

Drake notes, “One of the key problems is figuring out how to integrate multiple data streams. Also, there are some aspects of epidemics that are poorly understood and can change quickly, such as how individual behavior changes in the face of a perceived acute health threat. We need better sources of information about these processes, if we are to develop a reliable basis for forecasting.”

A global early warning system for infectious diseases would be transformative in efforts to advance global health security and improve global health equity. Learn more about what is needed to harness Big Data and technology for the safety of all the world’s citizens in “Future directions in analytics for infectious disease intelligence,” online at http://embor.embopress.org/content/early/2016/05/11/embr.201642534.

Support for Drake's research is provided by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U01GM110744.

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is one of the world's leading independent environmental research organizations. Areas of expertise include disease ecology, forest and freshwater health, climate change, urban ecology, and invasive species. Since 1983, Cary Institute scientists have produced the unbiased research needed to inform effective management and policy decisions.

The Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia is devoted to shaping the future of ecological inquiry and application to better understand our rapidly changing planet. Named for founder Eugene P. Odum, the school is building on his legacy of innovative interdisciplinary research, public service, and educating the next generation of ecologists and citizens.

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Future directions in analytics for infectious disease intelligence
EMBO Reports
Volume 17, Issue 5
01 May 2016 | pp 617 - 780