Sunday, March 24, 2013

Scientists claim they can predict disease outbreaks

Ever so often viruses manage to successfully infect human beings and spread throughout the population. In the past, viral outbreaks could lead to high death tolls, the influenza outbreak of 1918 being a famous example with 500 million infections and between 50 and 100 million deaths. Nowadays, viral outbreaks are less pronounced, but we have to remain cautious, as the 'swine flu' and 'bird flu' have taught us. In order to cope with future viral outbreaks, scientists have developed a model that can predict outbreaks before they occur. The method will mainly be used for viral spread in Africa.

Developed by the John Hopkins University, the novel technology seeks to inform the authorities by providing information on the likelihood of an epidemic. Their system is called Prism and has been developed to keep track of the Dengue virus which is predominantly found in Africa and spreads throughout the human population ever so often. Prism can provide information about an upcoming viral outbreak based on various statistical parameters that are included in the tool.

Prism's calculations are based on a technique known as Fuzzy Association Rule Mining, and it works by selecting the best 'fitting' model from a set of prediction variables. This model is then used to make predictions about upcoming Dengue outbreaks. With this concept, the scientists attempted to predict Dengue outbreaks in Peru, and later on in the Philippines. According to the researchers, their Prism tool provides 'highly accurate' information.

Outbreaks of certain viral strains such as Dengue still form a big problem in developing countries. Lives are lost because these outbreaks are often unpredictable and for various viral strains there is no proper treatment available. It is therefore important to predict such outbreaks, in order to take preventive measures and keep as many people disease-free as possible. Recently, we have seen deadly outbreaks of Ebola in Congo and Uganda. Perhaps Prism can be expanded to cover this deadly virus as well.

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