A digital surveillance program used Twitter feeds and news headlines to pick up on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a full nine days before the World Health Organization proclaimed it an epidemic.
But that doesn’t mean the outbreak could have been prevented.
Dr. Alessandro Vespignani, a professor of computer science and physics at Northeastern University, uses network science to model and forecast the spread of disease. Like HealthMap, the online tool cited above, Vespignani’s computer simulations cannot anticipate an outbreak before it actually begins.
“They don’t have a crystal ball either,” he says. “HealthMap is really a novel way of doing disease surveillance that can provide a real edge in the early detection of outbreaks by monitoring news articles, journals, Twitter or other digital sources. But they can’t do this before the actual occurrence of the event. There was already a situation in West Africa. HealthMap was just able to pick up the anomaly before anyone else.”
As the death toll climbs over 1,000 in West Africa, I was curious to know what makes this particular outbreak so relentless and what the global community can do to contain its spread.