Containing Disease by Spreading Data

Image credit: IBM Smarter Healthcare
Image credit: IBM Smarter Healthcare

While emerging vaccines for endemic diseases like dengue fever are showing promising results, they may not be available fast enough to stop the devastation.  In lieu of a vaccine, one way to combat disease is to stop it before it even happens.

How can big data and analytics help?

Recently, the New York Times reported on an emerging vaccine for dengue fever that has found success in early trials. The vaccine proved effective in approximately 60 percent of test cases.

The development of the first vaccine for dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease, is long awaited. Contained within just a handful of countries in the 1970s, dengue fever today is a pervasive scourge across the globe. There are an estimated 50 to 100 million dengue infections worldwide per year, according to the WHO, and the disease is now endemic in over 100 countries.

Click to enlarge infographic (image credit: IBM)
Click to enlarge infographic (image credit: IBM)

While news of a potential cure is encouraging, the vaccine remains a work-in-progress. Its effectiveness is significantly below the level desired by its advisors, and even optimistic forecasts predict that there won’t be widespread availability of the vaccine until late 2015 or early 2016. By then, dengue fever could claim the lives of tens of thousands.

In lieu of a vaccine, one way to combat dengue fever is to stop it before it even happens, which is where IBM is supporting the cause. In conjunction with Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, San Francisco, IBM is revamping the technological battle against dengue fever and malaria, another mosquito-borne disease.

IBM’s efforts are focused in Africa, where the combination of high temperatures, limited resources and the prevalence of a particular mosquito (Aedes aegypti) creates an environment that is devastatingly conducive to the spread of dengue fever.

Previously, African epidemiologists tracked and predicted dengue fever outbreaks with analytic models that were hampered by “inefficient data collection and lack of computing power.” Such restrictions can prove deadly for dengue fever patients, whose symptoms may become life-threatening in the matter of days.

The new models that IBM is engineering rely on population analytics, algorithms of disease paths and powerful computing to predict where and when outbreaks are most likely to occur. These capabilities allow public health officials to initiate preventative measures, such as medicine distribution or vector control, in anticipation of an imminent outbreak.

Whereas the older models the spread of dengue fever, likening it to human-to-human transmission, the new models draw upon a wealth of data. Included in their consideration are climate conditions, like temperature and precipitation, since such factors affect the local populations of mosquitos, dengue fever’s vector.

Moreover, the models are created and shared using the open-source modeling application, Spatio Temporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM). For other doctors and researchers, STEM provides not only accessibility to these models but the freedom to improve them.

IBM’s efforts to curb dengue fever and malaria outbreaks highlight two important purposes for enhanced healthcare: the use of big data, and the sharing of information.

us__en_us__healthcare__value_qualificaton_cover__172x140As presented in this study by the IBM Center for Applied Insights, embracing the growing wealth of information in the healthcare industry can lead to better care for patients (as well as a more profitable model for hospitals and other institutions).

By using “patient or pathogenic-specific information,” doctors can provide care that is more “targeted, evidence-based, [and] patient-specific,” according to the study. One objective of the shift toward better decision-making is the implementation of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs).

EMRs are comprehensive collections of patients’ medical histories that “enable clinicians to create and monitor treatment plans, book appointments, and provide an audit trail for all patient activities, treatment, and diagnoses.” After introducing EMRs and similarly helpful tools, the Vanderbilt Hospital saw a 24 percent reduction in the number of adverse drug events.

A subsequent action is the health information exchange (HIE), which allows for seamless and secure transfers of clinical data. Under these collaborative standards, providers can share “documents, test results, diagnostic images, and other relevant clinical data regardless of source, location or format,” as reported in the Center’s study. Through these open channels, healthcare approaches greater cohesion and fluidity, deserting the disconnect that has long defined the industry.

The path to better care lies in the use and propagation of information. That much is apparent in Africa, where IBM has spearheaded a smarter fight against dengue fever via detailed analytic models, and also at institutions like the Vanderbilt Hospital, where patients are benefiting from the power of EMRs. Across oceans, growing waves of data are delivering improved treatment to individuals in need.

1 response to Containing Disease by Spreading Data

  1. Terry Mason says:

    The world population continues to grow beyond where it has ever grown to before. Patient records are now being kept in areas where they were never kept before. Health budgets have ballooned to where they have never ballooned before. Big data will thrive in this domain, and we should feel good about it.


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