Scientists hope new dengue warning system and big data can control outbreaks
Dengue fever outbreaks are increasing in both frequency and magnitude. Not only that, the number of countries that could potentially be affected by the disease is growing all the time.
This growth has led to renewed efforts to address the disease, and a pioneering Malaysian researcher was recently recognized for his efforts to harness the power of big data and artificial intelligence to accurately predict dengue outbreaks.
Dr. Dhesi Baha Raja received the Pistoia Alliance Life Science Award at King’s College London in April of this year, for developing a disease prediction platform that employs technology and data to give people prior warning of when disease outbreaks occur.
The medical doctor and epidemiologist has spent years working to develop AIME (Artificial Intelligence in Medical Epidemiology) together with his colleague Mr. Rainier Mallol, Dr. Peter Ho & Dr. Ting along with a team of six people. This is the third international award that the prediction platform has won, the first being the Global Impact Competition that received recognition from Singularity University in Silicon Valley as well as the Clinton Foundation and the second award was being the Best Health Startup in Latin America.
President of Malaysian Integrated Medical Professional Association (MIMPA), Dr. Dhesi said that winning the latest award, which was organized by the Pistoia Alliance of King’s College London, proves and validates the artificial intelligence technology used as a tool for dengue prevention.
Despite inherent challenges in gathering such large scale data, ultimately, the powerful platform will provide the authorities with critical information about where and when an outbreak is likely to occur. This priceless information could aid in rolling out intervention strategies, such as warning the public and clearing potential breeding sites.
The science bit
For those of us who think Java is our morning caffeine hit, exactly how does the platform work? Dr. Dhesi explains that it relies on a complex algorithm, which analyses a wide range of data collected by local government and also satellite image recognition systems. Over 20 variables such as weather, wind speed, wind direction, thunderstorm, solar radiation and rainfall schedule are included and analyzed. Population models and geographical terrain are also included. The ultimate result of this intersection between epidemiology, public health and technology is a map, which clearly illustrates the probability and location of the next dengue outbreak.
The ground-breaking platform can predict dengue fever outbreaks up to two or three months in advance, with an accuracy approaching 88.7 per cent and within a 400m radius. Dr. Dhesi has just returned from Rio de Janeiro, where the platform was employed in a bid to fight dengue in advance of this summer’s Olympics. In Brazil, its perceived accuracy was around 84 per cent, whereas in Malaysia in was over 88 per cent – giving it an average accuracy of 86.37 per cent.
The web-based application has been tested in two states within Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, and Selangor, and the first ever mobile app is due to be deployed across Malaysia soon. Once its capability is adequately tested there, it will be rolled out globally. Dr. Dhesi’s team are working closely with mobile digital service provider Webe on this.
By making the app free to download, this will ensure the service becomes accessible to all, Dr Dhesi explains.
“With the web-based application, this could only be used by public health officials and agencies. We recognized the need for us to democratize this health service to the community, and the only way to do this is to provide the community with the mobile app.”
This will also enable the gathering of even greater knowledge on the possibility of dengue outbreaks in high-risk areas, as well as monitoring the changing risks as people move to different areas, he adds.
Giving everyone the ability to predict dengue fever outbreaks in their pockets is nothing short of revolutionary. Dr. Dhesi agrees; “We are trying to be the Elon Musk of public health,” he explains, referencing the renegade engineer, investor, and electric car pioneer who is fighting to reduce global warming.
The wrong focus
Dengue fever is not only a major public health problem, it is an expensive one. Dr. Dhesi explains to Break Dengue that, according to a 2010 World Health Organisation report, dengue-affected countries spend an average of $440 million per year combatting the disease. It is his opinion that these efforts are inefficient at best, and completely misdirected at worst. For example, some 43 per cent of this spend on dengue goes towards ‘fogging’ i.e., spraying to kill, or ‘knock-down’, any adult dengue mosquitoes that may be carrying the virus. Dr. Dhesi says that this narrow focus on vector control is challenging, adding that current reactionary methods in dealing with disease outbreaks are insufficient and costly.
“Dengue is so expensive because public health efforts have been focused on a reactive approach. This has been happening since the 1960s, that only when an outbreak actually occurs do we react to it.” As these numerous ways to deal with dengue have been without success, it is Dr. Dhesi’s belief that using data is the best way to shift to a more pro-active and thus effective approach.
“Instead of using the money we spend on nationwide health campaigns, we could direct financial resources towards tech, in other words, predicting exact outbreaks in advance in order to strategize a more focused prevention program which will allow us to spend less money & have a more effective outbreak management approach”
A neglected disease no more
Dengue was originally thought to be confined to Africa and some Asian countries, but in recent times, several other countries have reported cases. It has become clear that the total population now at risk is between 2.5 billion to 3 billion, and this new reality must alter the way the disease is perceived and addressed, according to Dr. Dhesi. “It is my view that dengue fever falls into the category of neglected tropical diseases. Now we are seeing the trend that dengue is moving towards the rest of the world. The Bay Area in California has recently reported a number of cases, we have also seen cases in Japan. It is moving into Latin America and Europe as well, so there is a clear need for us to pay more attention to dengue.” He also warns that prevention, as always, is better than cure.
“We must understand that it is not just dengue fever we must be concerned with. Dengue is carried by the Aedes mosquito, and this same mosquito also carries the Zika virus.”
Yet while the WHO has been reacting strongly to threats posed by outbreaks of Zika virus and Ebola, dengue fever has not received the same attention or prominence. “When it comes to dengue, people can be somewhat complacent. Now we have seen the same mosquito carrying Zika… I think it is time we shifted our attention.”
The next step
What is the next step for the award-winning AIME? Dr. Dhesi is now seeking venture capitalists as well as Government agencies to fund AIME’s endeavors as he continues to work on the roll-out of the mobile app and platform for government officials. Those who wish to pledge their support can also do so by voting for his project on the Webe website
The doctor, researcher, and entrepreneur is extremely active on social media, tweeting as @DhesiMD to almost 6,000 followers. His goal is to get people talking about dengue fever and raise awareness of his disease prevention efforts. “We realize that in order to kick this off globally we will need collaboration partners. By rolling it out globally, we will help to reduce the number of outbreaks, as well as significantly bringing down the costs of healthcare as related to dengue fever. There is a need for us to act as soon as possible.”
Find out more about how dengue impacts people’s lives in our short documentary below.