EBOLA Was Discovered by Healthmap.org Several Days Before WHO Reported It


“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old” ― Peter F. Drucker

Last week I wrote about the continuous role that ICTs have been playing in the fight against the deadly Ebola Virus Disease. Many of those who read that article agreed that indeed, the current Ebolo virus outbreak has confirmed the essential role and impact of ICTs on societies. In continuation of that discourse, today, I have chosen to discuss another “development” in the global healthcare landscape that has been around for a while but gained a space on the global spotlight as a result of the Ebola Virus Disease. This “development” is called HealthMap.org and it has become controversial in recent times.

Before going further, let me provide more information on why HealthMap is being discussed today in the international print and electronic media. Nine days before it was officially reported by the World Health Organization, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa had been spotted by HealthMap which is an online tool run by experts in Boston. HealthMap flagged a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" in forested areas of southeastern Guinea which was later determined to be Ebola.

HealthMap was developed and is being managed by a group of 45 researchers, epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children's Hospital. The software uses algorithms to scrub tens of thousands of social media sites, local news, government websites, infectious-disease physicians' social networks and other sources to detect and track disease outbreaks.  Being cognizant of the humongous amount of data on the internet, some of which are totally irrelevant, HealthMap uses  a set of sophisticated software filters to sift out irrelevant data, categorize the relevant information, identify the types of diseases and maps their locations with the help of experts. The greatest advantage that HealthMap has over other similar tools is that it has access to non-official online channels which enabled it to gain access to the March 19 news report in the Kenyan publication, the Standard News. The newspaper carried a story that quoted a Guinean health official describing 23 recent deaths due to hemorrhagic fever in a region where bush meat is regularly consumed.

HealthMap was introduced in 2006 with a core audience of public health specialists, but that changed as the system evolved and the public became increasingly hungry for information during the swine flu pandemic. The HealthMap website (www.healthmap.org) is freely available and it has a mobile app known as 'Outbreaks Near Me', that delivers real-time intelligence on a broad range of emerging infectious diseases for a diverse audience including libraries, local health departments, governments, and international travelers. It amalgamates disparate data sources, including online news aggregators, eyewitness reports, expert-curated discussions and validated official reports, to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. Through an automated process, updating 24/7/365, the system monitors, organizes, integrates, filters, visualizes and disseminates online information about emerging diseases in nine languages, facilitating early detection of global public health threats. 

The software used to develop the HealthMap tool are all Open Source Software with the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, & PHP/Perl), being used as the primary platform. In addition, HealthMap uses other web tools including Google Maps, GoogleMapAPI for PHP, Google Translate API and Xajax PHP AJAX library. Our Ministry of Health and Social Welfare can learn from HealthMap by collaborating with local ICT professionals, to replicate similar initiative and design a data-driven innovative information gathering system that collects data on infectious disease from hospitals within all counties of Liberia. This system will be programmed to provide public alerts based on algorithms, in the event it flags a dangerous virus or disease. This will help improve our health sector which has already proven to be wanting.

Many of our age-old health problems can be tackled by using 21st century technology. A lot of Liberians are now regular internet consumers and see it as a first point of call for medical information. In addition, we have a high mobile technology penetration which has increased access to content placed on the internet. ICTs are a great enabler, for everything including education, security, business, healthcare, etc. We should make adequate and prudent investment in them (ICTs) and leverage them for economic development.

Finally, if anyone still has doubts about the extent to which ICTs are transforming the economies of the world, I would say that person is still frozen in time. Why? Because even the hypothesis that ICT can raise the quality of life in nations, pre-dates the evolution of the Internet. The fight against the Ebola Virus Disease has made this evident and products of ICT such as HealthMap further assure us that ICT provides ways for us to “spot” deadly diseases before they become an epidemic.


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