Outbreaks of epidemics, communicable diseases, and pandemics have been recorded from as early as 430 BC during the Peloponnesian war in Athens, Greece. Since then, there have been plenty, like the 1350 AD Black Death, 1918 Spanish flu, 1981 HIV/AIDS, 2003 SARS, and 2019’s COVID-19.
Organised and institutionalised ways of tackling such pandemics, epidemics, communicable diseases or infectious diseases began in 1946 in Atlanta, USA. On July 1, 1946 the Communicable Disease Center, CDC, (now known as Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta. Its primary mission was simple yet highly challenging: prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. The agency’s early challenges included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war against mosquitoes.
CDC’s founder, Dr. Joseph Mountin, a visionary public health leader, pushed for CDC to extend its responsibilities to other communicable diseases. In 1947, CDC made a token payment of $10 to Emory University for 15 acres of land on Clifton Road in Atlanta that now serves as CDC’s headquarters.
The SARS epidemic of 2002–2003 exposed how fragile countries are in the face of a communicable disease. The US government responded by authorising CDC to establish a programme to promote a broader approach to preparing countries for any threats of infectious diseases that may occur. The CDC Global Disease Detection (GDD) Program was then born, signalling the agency’s first steps to a systematic approach to global health security.
The investigation of infectious disease outbreaks relies on the analysis of increasingly complex and diverse data, which offers new prospects for gaining insights into disease transmission processes and informing public health policies. The outbreak of COVID-19, which has spread to 213 countries and territories with over 11 million confirmed cases worldwide (as of July 2020) has further sped up this process.
In response, several digital health tools have emerged to aid in the tracking of the virus. Some of these tools use data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and focus on tracking and possible exposure. Some of these tools pull in information from social media. These tools might be able to aid in slowing the spread of the virus and studying the spread of the virus for what is now a mild pandemic.
HealthMap is one of these tools. It was created by John Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Coronavirus.app is another tracking application that pulls data from WHO, CDC and other sources. It was created by two researchers, Keven Basset and Maxime Michel, from Johns Hopkins.
However, the one that is globally used by governments and health agencies is the new R package, OutbreakTools, used by WHO and CDC. This software aims to provide a basis for outbreak data management and analysis in R (a popular programming language). OutbreakTools is developed by a community of epidemiologists, statisticians, modellers and bioinformaticians, and implements classes and methods for storing, handling and visualising outbreak data. It includes real and simulated outbreak datasets. The main purpose of OutbreakTools is to provide a coherent yet flexible way of storing outbreak data.
India quickly developed Aarogya Setu, an open-source COVID-19 “Contact tracing, Syndromic mapping, and Self-assessment” digital service (primarily a mobile app). This app, developed by the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, reached more than 100 million downloads in 40 days. Aarogya Sethu is custom-designed for India. This app does bluetooth-based contact tracing. COVID-19 positive information comes from a testing lab to Indian Council of Medical Research, and then from their database to ours. Ajay Devgn is the chosen brand ambassador for Aarogya Sethu.
Many more digital health tools have appeared since the breakout of COVID-19 and will continue to evolve for much easier tracking and monitoring for any future pandemics that may arise — though we definitely hope there won’t be the need to!