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Big data tool harnesses 125 years of infectious disease info to boost collaboration

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The increasing availability of big data from the likes of CMS to get a better handle on population health patterns is a growing trend in healthcare. Health IT startups such as Social Health Insights and Konnectology are just a couple of examples of that in action. But what could it do to improve understanding for the spread of infectious disease? A new initiative at University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health is finding out. It has aggregated 125 years worth of data charting infectious diseases, converting it from paper documents into an open access database called Project Tycho.

What’s the coolest initial finding? It not only underscores the benefits of vaccines, but also quantifies them. Vaccines have helped prevent more than 100 million cases of serious childhood contagious diseases, according to Dr. Willem van Panhuis, an assistant professor of epidemiology at University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. He served as the lead author on a paper about Project Tycho for The New England Journal of Medicine. Having proof of these benefits is critical at a time when parents’ resistance to getting children vaccinated has spurred a resurgence in diseases that were once greatly reduced such as pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella.

Project Tycho will save researchers around the world the time of finding reliable historical data from different sources for infectious diseases that’s critical to understanding underlying epidemic dynamics, according to van Panhuis. “By digitizing and giving open access to the entire collection of U.S. notifiable disease data, we’ve made a bold move toward solving this problem.”


The researchers selected eight vaccine-preventable contagious diseases for a more detailed analysis: smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria and pertussis, according to a statement from Pitt Public Health.  By overlaying the reported outbreaks with the year  the vaccine became available, the researchers are able to give a clear, visual representation of the effect that vaccines have in controlling communicable diseases.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Discovery and Translational Sciences Deputy Director Steven Buchsbaum said the organization sees the database as an invaluable tool for researchers around the world to develop, test and validate epidemiological models and could be a model for making other sets of public health data available to the public.

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Stephanie Baum

By Stephanie Baum

Stephanie Baum is the East Coast Innovation Reporter for MedCityNews.com. She enjoys covering healthcare startups across health IT, drug development and medical devices and innovations deployed to improve medical care. She graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania and has worked across radio, print and video. She's written for The Christian Science Monitor, Dow Jones & Co. and United Business Media.
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