Can digital tools help control dengue?

mapIn the fight against Dengue, Brazil has pioneered a novel approach using social networking sites and web search query data as a way of complementing traditional dengue surveillance techniques by providing early warnings of outbreak locations.

Thanks to software created by a collaboration between two Brazilian National Institutes of Science and Technology, Twitter is being used to monitor real time dengue fever cases and could be an efficient way of locating areas to concentrate health resources. Updated with tweets, the software contributes to “active surveillance” of dengue incidents.

Besides using social media, web search query data has also been found to be capable of tracking dengue activity in Bolivia, Brazil, India, Indonesia and Singapore. While traditional dengue data from official sources are often not available until after some substantial delay, web search query data is available in near real time. This helps people quickly get the information that they need, enabling a faster response time.

Tools such as HealthMap and Google Dengue Trends have also proven to be helpful. As these tools record searches using aggregated search data, it is possible to estimate current dengue activity around the world.

Underestimating the burden of dengue in India

Doing my rounds as an internist, I visit five or six hospitals a day. And in peak season, I see several cases of dengue every day. I can see that it’s a major public health problem. But to the rest of the world? Well, I think we haven’t got the numbers right yet. If we’re going to really tackle dengue in India, we need to calculate the scale of the problem. Research in India from 2012 shows that we’re not doing that. In fact, it suggests that we’re actually underestimating the number of cases in the country. Burden of dengue in India India suffered from a severe dengue outbreak in 2012. And while we haven’t got official numbers for 2013 yet, my experiences as a doctor suggest that the instances of dengue will be as bad as in 2012, if not worse. I’m not the only one who thinks this. By mid-September 2013, doctors in New Delhi had reported well over a thousand cases of dengue, according to this report in the New York Times. If this figure is representative, then dengue infections could be in the millions across the country. That’s far below official figures. There’s every indication that we’re massively underestimating the scope of dengue in India. As doctors, we’re obliged to report every case we see. But what happens if we’re dealing with so many infections that we start to lose count? If we’re going to break dengue in India, we have to get the numbers right. It’ll probably be alarming to uncover the true extent of the number of infections, but we really need to know what we’re up against if we’re going to combat the disease.