Boston researchers trying to forecast Ebola’s spread, but more data would help

(Reuters photo)
(Reuters photo)

As the biggest Ebola outbreak in history continues to claim lives, a handful of researchers are using mathematical models and knowledge about the virus to predict the reach of the disease before it strikes. Among them is Northeastern University researcher Alessandro Vespignani, but he and others are stymied by a lack of data about the outbreak and the disease itself, according to a news report in Science.

Vespignani’s projections estimate that the disease could reach 10,000 cases by September, if control efforts do not ramp up, Science correspondent Kai Kupferschmidt reports. Vespignani is also tracking the possibility of spread to other countries.

At MIT, PhD student Maia Majumder is also using simulations to understand the spread of this outbreak. Her goal is to produce answers that are going to be useful on the ground—”just how *much* manpower, PPE, and hospital beds (and potentially, quarantine facilities) we need to treat those who contract Ebola”—she wrote to me in an email. Like Vespignani, she is also interested in knowing how many people will contract Ebola, but also how long the outbreak will last.

Today at the United Nations, MSF International president Joanne Liu was sharply critical of international governments’ response so far, and called for additional health resources. She requested military and civilian assistance to scale up isolation, among other suggestions for disease control.

Part of Majumder’s research is to determine how effective infection control can be in stemming the spread of the disease. Her preliminary findings indicate that even small positive changes in control could significantly reduce the longevity and magnitude of the outbreak,” she says.

In theory, Ebola should be easier to track and contain than the flu, according to Laura White, a biostatistician at Boston University’s school of public health. But a good chunk of cases in this outbreak are slipping under the radar, and the struggling public health infrastructure across a rapidly expanding urban affected area, is making tracking even harder.

“The issue is that there are not enough people on the ground to track it and not enough infrastructure to really do good surveillance to understand how it is spreading,” White wrote in an email. “There are also a lot of people who are being missed because they won’t go to a clinic or don’t have access to clinic.”

White believes that nascent methods to track the disease using remote methods like cell phone data show some promise, but these techniques are not established yet, she said.

HealthMap, a project based at Boston Children’s Hospital, has experience tracking conditions like the flu. Though this team is not modelling this Ebola outbreak, the HealthMap team is keeping daily track of case reports.

Infectious disease modeling has captured the interest of national agencies as well. Earlier this month, DARPA launched a contest challenging researchers who model disease outbreaks to take on Chikungunya, the virus that is traveling the Americas for the first time this season.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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