Opinion: Big data can prevent global health crises — it's time to make the most of it

The head of the Parana Health Secretariat regional office in Brazil shows the areas to be covered in its dengue immunization program. Photo by: Gabriel Lehto / Sanofi Pasteur / CC BY-NC-ND

Every year, more than 1 million people die from vector-borne diseases. These diseases are carried by mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, who once infected can transmit the disease to hundreds of victims in an alarmingly short time frame.

Globalization of travel and trade, unplanned urbanization and environmental challenges such as climate change have had a significant impact on disease transmission in recent years. Some diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya and West Nile virus, are emerging in countries where they were previously unknown.

Dengue fever is of particular interest given its geographic spread, public health impact and capacity for disrupting health systems. It causes fever, headache, vomiting, joint pain and a skin rash, and has been linked to pregnancy risks. Spread by the same mosquito responsible for the Zika outbreak, it is the fastest-growing mosquito-borne viral infection in the world today.

In the 1970s, fewer than 10 countries reported epidemics of severe dengue. Today, dengue is present in over 150 countries, meaning that around 40 percent of the world’s population now live in countries where dengue is a daily risk.

An ongoing crisis

The economic toll of dengue fever and its impact on health systems are enormous — the total annual cost of dengue has been put at $8 billion.

Moreover, dengue outbreaks adversely affect other health service users. Health system capacity can adapt to meet predictable demand for malaria or diabetes care. But dengue outbreaks are sporadic, unpredictable and highly disruptive.

What can be done?

Despite progress in recent years, most cases of mosquito-borne infection are still not diagnosed today. Better diagnostics and wider disease surveillance data are required not only to get a handle on the true scale of the challenge, but also to measure the real-world impact of preventative measures such as mosquito control and immunization — and this is where technology comes in.  

Break Dengue’s Dengue Track initiative is one example of a tool that tracks the epidemiology of dengue in order to understand and prevent future outbreaks. This crowdsourced tool offers a user-friendly online chat system which maps dengue cases worldwide, as well as giving the public free access to toolkits that help reduce their risk of infection.

As those who encounter dengue report the location through the chat system, a clear map can be plotted to show high-risk areas. By pairing this information with official data sources from governments and health care authorities, as well as data sourced from social media and search engines, an even more comprehensive picture of real-time dengue outbreaks can be built.

This will provide both authorities and nongovernmental organizations with valuable, actionable data based on which they can make informed decisions, as well as providing travellers with vital information if they are traveling to a high-risk area.

View full infographic here.

The same model could also be used to track and map countless other mosquito-borne diseases, such as Zika, malaria, yellow fever or chikungunya. It could also be extended to more digital channels to reach even more users, thus making it more equitable — although only a third of people in developing countries have access to the internet, over 95 percent have mobile phones, so developing an SMS-based service could be an important step in creating a health solution that serves all communities, not just the wealthy.

Tackling these viruses will require synergistic global solutions which harness the power of existing technologies, as well as creating new ones. When utilized in tandem, mosquito control, vaccination, rapid diagnostics and effective treatment for severe cases can combine to turn the tide against mosquito-borne diseases. Achieving this will require multinational, multisector efforts to raise public awareness of such diseases and implement effective solutions, and these will take time to put in place. But gathering as much information as we can about the spread of mosquito-borne diseases is a practical first step in turning the tide against them. Each one of these diseases poses a serious public health challenge about which much can be learned by studying and tracking other mosquito-borne illnesses.

To truly make the most of the technologies available to us, data experts need to step out of their traditional private sector roles and work collaboratively with NGOs and local governments. We need to create more partnerships to develop tools such as Dengue Track, which can locate existing cases and prevent mosquito-borne diseases from spreading further. Modern technology has already proven invaluable in the fight against hundreds of other diseases — let’s use it to combat these too.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Gary Finnegan

    Gary Finnegan has a degree in physiology, an MSc in science communications, and has worked as a health journalist and editor for 10 years. He was a national winner at the EU Health Prize for Journalists in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Having always been interested in health, he joined the Break Dengue team to be part of a broad coalition focused on defeating a disease that affects some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As the editor-in-chief, Gary plans and prepares content for Break Dengue with the support of the editorial team.
  • Pratit Samdani

    Pratit Samdani is an honorary associate professor of medicine at Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals and unit head at G.T. Hospital, Jaslok Hospital, Breach Candy Hospital, Bhatia Hospital, Saifee Hospital, Cumballa Hill Hospital and Global Hospital, Mumbai. He is hailed as one of Mumbai’s Top Doctors by India Today and was a recipient of the “Excellence in Medicine” award in December 2012 (in Delhi) and June 2013 (in Mumbai). Dr. Samdani has a wealth of experience in various fields of medicine, including infectious disease, endocrinology, cardiology and neurology. With the increasing prevalence of dengue in his country and feeling the burden (through his patients) of a very preventable tropical disease, Dr. Samdani has a keen interest in both educating doctors about dengue and treating this disease.
  • Kamran Rafiq

    Kamran is the communications director at the International Society for Neglected Tropical Diseases. After graduating from The School of Pharmacy, University of London in pharmacology and toxicology Kamran went on to complete his masters in neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry and The Maudsley, Kings College London. He has worked as a research scientist at Schering-Plough Research Center at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Italy working on neuropeptides and novel mechanisms of pain transmission and Parkinson’s disease modelling. Upon returning to the U.K. he worked for Reuters Business Insights setting up their drug discovery intelligence unit and then as sales director for Datamonitor being an integral part of the acquisition and subsequent integration of the company Life Science Analytics and then as managing director at Global Data overseeing both pharma/biotech and medical device diagnostics market teams.