Going Viral

Kalev Leetaru considers the role that online data – even blogs – could have in halting diseases like Ebola:

It turns out that monitoring the spread of Ebola can teach us a lot about what we missed — and how data mining, translation, and the non-Western world can help to provide better early warning tools.

Earlier this month, Harvard’s HealthMap service made world headlines for monitoring early mentions of the current Ebola outbreak on March 14, 2014, “nine days before the World Health Organization formally announced the epidemic,” and issuing its first alert on March 19.  Much of the coverage of HealthMap’s success has emphasized that its early warning came from using massive computing power to sift out early indicators from millions of social media posts and other informal media.

As one blog put it: “So how did a computer algorithm pick up on the start of the outbreak before the WHO? As it turns out, some of the first health care workers to see Ebola in Guinea regularly blog about their work. As they began to write about treating patients with Ebola-like symptoms, a few people on social media mentioned the blog posts. And it didn’t take long for HealthMap to detect these mentions.”

The unfortunate flip side:

But there was some great news today:

Update: Some not-so-great breaking news:

Meanwhile, Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre assesses the latest US role in combatting the Ebola epidemic – boots on the ground:

Last week, President Obama announced the deployment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which will set up a joint force command in Liberia to coordinate the activity of 3,000 U.S. forces; expedite the transportation of equipment and supplies; and train an estimated 500 health-care workers per week. …

The AFRICOM and UNMEER missions are not your typical militarized humanitarian intervention. Defining the Ebola crisis as a human security issue is a game changer. There is no conflict in the West African countries most heavily affected by Ebola (at least not yet), thus the security threat highlighted by the UNSC is a threat to people and their humanity — the right to life with dignity. Humanity is a universal principle, one that transcends and orders all the other humanitarian principles, one that NGOs, states and international organizations can all get behind. Viewed through this lens, it is no wonder that NGOs, such as Doctors Without Borders, that typically refuse to work with national militaries are calling on militaries to provide logistical support to address the Ebola epidemic.

Ezra, in an interview with the director of the CDC, underscores the connection between West Africa and the US:

Ezra Klein: One thing that has been striking here is the degree to which weak health-care systems in poor countries can be a real threat to rich countries. How should we think about that?

Thomas Frieden: Yes. We are all at risk. But it’s not health systems so much as public-health systems. Do you have a system in place to find when there’s a cluster of unexpected illness, whether it’s Ebola or MERS or SARS or the next HIV? Do you have a system in place to get the lab tests done? Do you have trained disease investigators?

This is not going to come by creating some great global entity to do all this for us. We need to build the capacity of countries to find, stop, and prevent global health crises. We are all vulnerable to the weakest link in the chain. And it is not that expensive to strengthen those links. But it does mean you need to train public-health workers. It does mean you need a lab-reporting network. It means you have more than a public-health system you pull out in case of emergencies. It means you have one you’re using every day to fight disease, and so you can scale it up in the event of an emergency.

Follow all our Ebola coverage here.