Monday, September 30, 2013

Scientists turn data into disease detective to predict dengue fever and malaria outbreaks

Medical Xpress: Scientists from IBM are collaborating with Johns Hopkins University and University of California, San Francisco to combat illness and infectious diseases in real-time with smarter data tools for public health. The focus is to help contain global outbreaks of dengue fever and malaria by applying the latest analytic models, computing technology and mathematical skills on an open-source framework.

Vector-borne diseases, like malaria and dengue fever, are infections transmitted to humans and other animals by blood-feeding insects, such as mosquitoes, ticks and fleas.

Once thought to be limited geographically to the tropics or developing countries, they continue to show up all over the world and are among the most complex and dangerous infectious diseases to prevent and control. The rise of global transportation, trade and climate change allows insects to easily carry disease organisms across borders, infecting animals as well as humans. Dengue fever, for example, has spread to over 100 countries, including the United States, and malaria is responsible for over one million annual deaths. Finding and implementing new, innovative methods of predicting outbreaks is key to saving lives.

Epidemiologists rely on disease and vaccine simulations to determine the spread of global infection. Until recently, these models were hosted on closed systems and took years to produce due to inefficient data collection and lack of computing power. This approach to model development makes it too slow to respond on a timescale relevant to unexpected pandemics as large populations can be crippled by never before seen viruses or illnesses in a matter of days or weeks. Scientists need to understand not only the dynamics of the disease itself, but also the spread of insect vectors and contributing environmental factors....

A TEM micrograph showing Dengue virus virions (the cluster of dark dots near the center)

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