Countering Epidemics in Resource Limited Settings Using Google
Countering an epidemic is a daunting challenge, especially in resource limited settings. In these countries, there are no formal organizations like the center for disease control, which maintains rigorous surveillance and can hence predict the disease by analyzing the trends. Thus the emphasis should be laid on more cost effective and less rigorous options.
Since the infectious diseases are the ones readily transmissible and (comparatively) easily preventable, it would be logical to assume that they are the ones most amenable to prevention by use of such surveillance. Also, infectious diseases in general are more prevalent in the areas with limited financial resources.
Pakistan faced a record outbreak of dengue epidemic in 2010 which claimed hundreds of lives and affected another thousands of people. However, in stark contrast to the other countries which required multiple years to tackle this calamity, Pakistan was able to overcome the menace in a relatively short duration. While this can be attributed to simple preventive health measures such as improvement in the sanitary conditions and use of fumigation in the affected areas, a crucial component of the fight-back strategy was the use of technology, specially the Google trends.
It has been shown by analyzing the Google flu trends that an increase in the number of searches from a particular area can point a clue to an impending epidemic. Adequate interventions in that particular area can decrease the incidence of that disease. Using this idea, researchers from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), extrapolated the concept to devise a novel strategy for Dengue. These algorithms were published in Journal of Medical Internet Research. This strategy was then utilized to predict epidemics in certain areas of Punjab, resulting in adequate measures and a decreased incidence.
I believe that this example represents a potentially effective strategy, especially for countries with paucity of resources. Large cross sectional and perhaps randomized studies are warranted to generate evidence before the strategy can be generalized. Also, new algorithms will have to be devised before we can proceed to curbing epidemics of other diseases.
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