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This article is from the In-Depth Report A Guide to the Salmonella Outbreak

World Wide Wellness: Online Database Keeps Tabs on Emerging Health Threats

A new tool tracks diseases, contaminants and other threats as they occur worldwide



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News travels fast—especially online—and a group of scientists intends to put this to good use by monitoring and trying to stop infectious diseases in their tracks.

Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School have launched a data-mining project called HealthMap. This automated system scours news services and online discussion forums, pooling information about emerging health threats worldwide.

By doing so, HealthMap provides a glimpse of potential disease outbreaks in local pockets, often before government and other health agencies such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) realize they are threats.

"We hope that HealthMap will be able to identify outbreaks before traditional organizations become aware of them," says John Brownstein, co-founder of HealthMap and an assistant professor at the Informatics Program (CHIP) at Children's Hospital Boston. "The program is tracking in over 200 countries currently, and this helps to monitor the global impact of infectious diseases."

Once the news is in, HealthMap tracks and compiles all the latest reports, from government warnings to blogosphere buzz, and makes them available on its site free of charge. 

HealthMap uses a color-coded reference system overlaid on a world map to highlight where disease news is being generated. For instance, red, or "hot," icons designate areas in which there are multiple reports of illness. The program continues to scan progress once public heath agencies declare an outbreak or epidemic to keep both researchers and consumersin the loop and on top of the latest news about any particular event.

"We use a number of different algorithms to sort through all the information online," says HealthMap co-founder Clark Freifeld, a research software developer for the Children's Hospital Informatics Program. "This allows us to root out duplicative reports and determine where and when something is happening."

A current example of HealthMap's abilities is the salmonella outbreak generating headlines and concern across the U.S. By clicking on the red, square-topped icon over the U.S. (indicating a countrywide threat), a site visitor is linked to recent news reports, government estimates of sickened individuals, and so forth.

Visitors to the site today, for example, would learn that over 900 people have caught the bug in 40 states, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time of this writing, the search for the culprit crop continues: Public officials now believe that tainted tomatoes may not be the only source; jalapeno peppers are also suspect. HealthMap founders say they spotted the emerging outbreak days before the CDC by homing in on reports of salmonella-related gastrointestinal distress in New Mexico.

HealthMap's creators tout the service as a valuable tool, too, in detecting and preventing illnesses from spreading in developing countries that lack proper public health watchdogs and facilities (not to mention clean water).

Officials at ProMED-mail, another disease-tracking site with 50,000 subscribers, applaud the effort.

"It's very nice getting to see these things geographically," says ProMED editor Larry Madoff, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

He predicts that information from sources such as pharmacy sales of certain medications, and even indirect indicators like the stock market, could also inform disease tracking in powerful ways.

"At this point, I think we are just scratching the surface about what's out there," Madoff says.

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