WASHINGTON – Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have created a digital database of infectious-disease cases dating back 125 years, a treasure trove of information that could help scientists and public health officials better understand how to fight the spread of deadly afflictions.
The searchable database, outlined in the Thursday issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
To construct it, researchers compiled weekly disease surveillance reports published between 1888 and 2013 — about 6,500 tables — as well as data from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The database tracks when and where people got sick, as well as how many died from their illnesses.
What emerges is a detailed picture of how 56 infectious diseases have affected the American landscape since the late 19th century — and what interventions have proved most effective in stopping them. By comparing reported outbreaks of polio, smallpox and other diseases with the dates when vaccines for each came into use, researchers were able to document the lifesaving role those drugs played.
“We saw these very abrupt declines of incidence rates across the country,” said lead author Willem van Panhuis, assistant professor of epidemiology at the university’s Graduate School of Public Health, known as Pitt Public Health. Ultimately, he and his co-authors estimated that the introduction of vaccines had helped prevent 100 million cases of serious childhood diseases, a figure they said is worth remembering during a time when critics have raised questions about the necessity of vaccines.
“We really hope this will ignite debate about the use of vaccinations, and that it will provide a new piece of evidence,” van Panhuis said. “We hope this will give this whole discussion a new dimension.”
The creators of the new database also said they hope its utility lies not only in looking back at the history of infectious diseases, but also in using the information to deal more effectively with future outbreaks.
“As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, ‘We live forward but understand backward,’ ” said Donald Burke, dean of Pitt Public Health and a senior author on the project.
He said the database contains insights about the spread of diseases not always readily available in the past, such as where they occurred and among what demographics, as well as the weather and climate at the time. Those added details could help epidemiologists more accurately predict and respond to looming outbreaks.
“These are complicated problems,” Burke said. “We need to ground-truth all of our models. . . . We need that historical basis.”
Organizers of the effort dubbed it Project Tycho, after 16th-century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe, whose astronomical observations helped Johannes Kepler derive the laws of planetary motion. Likewise, Burke said he hopes that the existence of the digitized infectious disease records will spur a wave of lifesaving research and that other researchers find uses for the database that its creators never even imagined. “The excitement is that this is going to be a rich data source for discovering patterns in epidemiology,” he said.
Steven Buchsbaum, who leads the discovery and translational sciences team at the Gates Foundation, said he expects the creation of the disease database to prompt other efforts like it.
“We anticipate this will not only prove to be an invaluable tool permitting researchers around the globe to develop, test and validate epidemiological models,” Buchsbaum said in a statement, “but also has the potential to serve as a model for how other organizations could make similar sets of critical public health data more broadly, publicly available.”
On the most granular level, Burke said, the database also provides data not merely for experts and academics, but also for average people interested in discovering how epidemics have affected their own part of the world over the past century.
“It’s not abstract,” he said of the information in the database. “It brings epidemiology to a hometown level.”
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