The app that spotted the Ebola outbreak before WHO

Online disease mapping tool still has some kinks, researchers say

Health officials from Boston Children's Hospital this week said that their online disease mapping tool spotted an outbreak of "mystery hemorrhagic fever" in Guinea nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the Ebola epidemic.

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The tool, Health Map, aggregates tens of thousands of local news, government, social media, and physicians' social networks to detect and track disease outbreaks. Operated by 45 researchers at Boston Children's, the software filters the data to map where disease outbreaks are occurring around the world.

  • On March 14, HealthMap identified a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" that had killed eight people in a forested area of southeastern Guinea, according to the "Public Health Watch" blog.
  • On March 19, HealthMap posted a dot on its map of Guinea with a link to local news reports of a possible Ebola outbreak that had killed 23 people, and HealthMap also issued an alert.
  • On March 22, the Ministry of Health of Guinea officially notified WHO of an outbreak,
  • On March 23, WHO confirmed the outbreak.

Since then, the incurable disease has killed more than 950 people and spread to Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, WHO says.

"It shows some of these informal sources are helping paint a picture of what's happening that's useful to these public health agencies," says HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein.

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The tool, which was first introduced to the public in 2006, still has some kinks. For example, HealthMap is reporting "high activity" for Ebola in the New York City area—where there are no confirmed cases. The developers say it comes from a New York hospital reporting a possible case and then other patients going to providers with Ebola fears (AP/Modern Healthcare, 8/11 [subscription required]; Schlanger, Newsweek, 8/11).


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