Does Big Data Have a Role to Play in Fighting the Zika Virus?

With about 3,000 cases of pregnant women infected with Zika virus in Brazil, travel-associated cases beginning to show up in the United States, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) declaration of Zika as a global public health emergency, several healthcare professionals are looking to Big Data as a potential tool to wield in efforts to combat the disease.

OpenZika, an international research effort sponsored by IBM that utilizes the company’s World Community Grid, is providing free supercomputing power to researchers looking to crunch the numbers on large-scale datasets in the search for a cure. The grid draws power from volunteers around the world who donate their computers and Android devices to the cause, according to HealthDataManagement (HDM). With this computing power at their disposal, “scientists will perform virtual experiments, screening current drugs and millions of drug-like compounds from existing databases against models of Zika protein structures, as well as against structures of proteins from related viruses such as Dengue and West Nile Virus,” according to the article.

Kamran Khan, found of a for-profit social enterprise company based in Toronto called BlueDot, is also looking to harness the potential of Big Data against Zika. “At BlueDot we integrate expertise in clinical medicine and public health with big data analytics and visualization to help decision-makers prepare for and respond to infectious diseases,” according to the company’s website. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and BlueDot, which helps public health agencies and providers evaluate the potential spread of infectious disease with research reports and risk maps, are in the midst of a five-year cooperative agreement. BlueDot has been tracking the Zika virus, and predicted the spread of the disease in Brazil in a paper published a month before the WHO classified it a public health emergency, as well as predicts its eventual spread to the US, according to HDM.

Even with public health surveillance in place, they are often outpaced by the time analysis and reporting is completed with diseases such as Zika that rise and spread quickly. “The idea of a platform where we can analyze multiple different data sources, alongside all of the stakeholders—crowd sourcing solutions—could be the way we can do this,” Jamie Powers, consultant to the healthcare industry with SAS, told Forbes. With the proliferation of modern technology, the problem isn’t having enough data—it’s having the right people find the right data in time before an emergency develops.

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