8 July 2008

Web Crawler Identifies Infectious Disease Outbreaks

by Kate Melville

Web-based electronic information sources such as discussion forums, listervs and news outlets can play an important role in early disease outbreak detection, say a team of researchers from Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. To back up their claim, the researchers have created HealthMap, a real-time, automated web crawling system that gathers, organizes and disseminates online intelligence related to disease outbreaks.

"Web-based electronic information sources can play an important role in early event detection and support situational awareness by providing current, highly local information about outbreaks, even from areas relatively invisible to traditional global public health efforts," team member John Brownstein told PLoS Medicine.

Brownstein describes HealthMap as a "multistream real-time surveillance platform that continually aggregates reports on new and ongoing infectious disease outbreaks." The reports are organized and disseminated in a variety of ways, he adds, including the creation of disease maps and situational awareness windows.

Ultimately, say Brownstein, the use of news media and other nontraditional sources of surveillance data can "facilitate early outbreak detection, increase public awareness of disease outbreaks prior to their formal recognition, and provide an integrated and contextualized view of global health information."

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Source: Public Library of Science