A Social Approach to Tackling Zika

Social media has proven itself to be a useful tool for rekindling old friendships, networking for prospective jobs, staying up-to-date in breaking news, and now, mapping the spread of rampant epidemics. With the Zika virus the latest public health threat to make headlines, scientists have been using data from social media, blog posts, news sites, and Google search terms—to name a few—to curate models that help map the spread of the virus.

“This is a field called digital disease detection…Essentially, it tries to be the weather.com for disease outbreak,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. Brownstein was joined by Johns Hopkins Medical School’s Hongjun Song at the latest in a series of Capitol Hill briefings, which took place on July 6, in Washington, DC. Together with the Dana Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been hosting these public briefings for the last six years.

Brownstein and his team of researchers use “patient-generated information from alternative data sources” to gain new insight into public health issues. This alternative surveillance system has been able to successfully pinpoint, monitor, and predict the spread of viruses in the recent past, including H1N1 and Ebola. Digital disease detection is now being deployed to monitor Zika as it spreads beyond Brazil to the Americas.

A recent article about the event states that less than two months ago, a panel at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated it will cost six southern states (where the virus is expected to first impact the continental US) more than $2 billion in medical care and lost wages alone. With these states already monitoring the spread of Zika, improving predictive tools will play a big role in addressing the public health risk.

Song described a Johns Hopkins study conducted earlier this year that confirmed the initial areas of the brain affected by the virus and how it then advances to “blunt the size of the brain” by triggering brain cells to die off. The virus is spread by two species of mosquito but can also be passed on during pregnancy, causing reports of fetal deaths and newborns with brain disorders, including microcephaly. The efforts of Song and his lab are ongoing, as they work to gain a better understanding of how the virus affects the brain in order to develop vaccines and therapies.

To learn more about the event, read this article on the AAAS site. You can also watch a full video of the briefing below:

– Seimi Rurup

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