Helping health workers understand unfolding disease outbreaks - Albuquerque Journal

Helping health workers understand unfolding disease outbreaks

Imagine you’re in the public health field, perhaps an epidemiologist, tasked with tracking diseases causing serious health problems in your area – especially new diseases that you have seen reported only in distant lands. If dengue, for example, suddenly sends scores of people to a hospital in one part of your state, local decision makers would turn to you to predict the steps needed to prevent an outbreak in your region.

Alina Deshpande

With unlimited research time, subscriptions to specialty publications and a deep awareness of the complex modeling tools on the market, you could probably create a report with some suggestions. Instead, what you need is a quick tool to help develop actionable information and, in the case of lethal infections, this tool could rapidly propose life-saving actions in the early days of the event.

This is the plan for a web-based disease-outbreak tool developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a quick analysis resource called AIDO (“I-do”) for Analytics for Investigation of Disease Outbreaks. Unlike traditional epidemiological models, this tool can be used by diverse group of users, such as analysts, scientists, practitioners, decision makers and the public, at no cost. The website provides historic information for key outbreaks of nearly 40 different diseases and it helps responders select the historic similarities to each new situation, even as an outbreak evolves over the first hours and days.

Why is that historic approach valuable? Given that history repeats itself, a review of comparable cases with similar climate, patient characteristics, treatment approaches and the like could have great value in guiding a community’s response.

Earlier is better in decision-making for public health responders, thus the sense of urgency in finding out what others have done. From vaccination to infant care to quarantines, those early policies and tactics are critical to handling what could be a mass casualty event and steering it to a safer level.

The key is finding the epidemiological clues that will help decision-makers make the right choices. Their choices could include a ring-vaccination approach, vaccinating and closely monitoring everyone who might have been in contact with sick patients. A full or partial quarantine of a home, village or entire town could also be considered. But such decisions have wide social impacts and they need to be made from the most comprehensive data analysis, not on a hunch or a whim.

The scope of use for the AIDO tool is early while the situation is unfolding. In the first few days or weeks, clients use it over and over to update the site with day-to-day changes and see what insights are coming to light.

Professionals can already use the tool on the Los Alamos Biosurveillance Gateway website both to explore outbreak characteristics and to survey the training materials, such as the information pages where less familiar diseases are described in greater detail. Being able to reference the “Dengue Facts” page, for example, allows the researcher to quickly access maps of the locations of the specific types of mosquitoes that transmit dengue to humans.

Given the breadth and depth of AIDO’s outbreak library, a user might wonder if their own outbreak is anomalous compared to other historical outbreaks. The “Anomaly Detection” section is aimed at allowing the user to answer this question. Box plots and pie charts illustrate details of each outbreak’s characteristics, helping users match patterns with their own situations. AIDO is not designed to call out a biothreat event, but could help flag an unusual circumstance, documenting outbreaks that represent the sometimes surprising diversity of disease presentation.

Q Fever, for example, is what’s called a zoonotic disease, meaning that it travels from animals to humans. It normally occurs in farm areas among agricultural workers who handle cattle or sheep that may be infected. But an unusual presentation of Q Fever happened in a Middle Eastern city, within a boarding school cafeteria – not the regular location for such a thing. It was only through careful epidemiological analysis that the path was identified, in this case an unusual but natural one, not a bioterror event: While the disease normally comes from contact with livestock, instead, a community of feral cats had been taking turns sitting on an external air conditioner vent at the school, thus distributing the virus into the school cafeteria and across the full 300-plus students and staff. Nearly 200 of the schoolchildren were infected.

For a health care researcher, this sort of situational report, found on AIDO, can be essential to understanding the unfolding outbreak.

So in theory, a quick website look-up could be not just a tool for finding better shopping options or hiring a plumber – the use of AIDO could make the different between a small-scale outbreak and a full-on epidemic.

Alina Deshpande is the group leader of the Biosecurity and Public Health group in the Bioscience Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she manages a group of nearly 60 staff members, technologists, post-doctoral fellows and students.


Home » Business » Health & Safety » Helping health workers understand unfolding disease outbreaks

Insert Question Legislature form in Legis only stories

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

taboola desktop

ABQjournal can get you answers in all pages


Questions about the Legislature?
Albuquerque Journal can get you answers
Email addresses are used solely for verification and to speed the verification process for repeat questioners.
New Mexico State cools off UNM bats in 2-0 ...
(Photo gallery: New Mexico State vs. ... (Photo gallery: New Mexico State vs. New Mexico) Past performances meant nothing at Santa Ana Star Field on Tuesday night. New Mexico State came ...
Editorial: ShotSpotter needs to prove its $3.2M cost
OPINION: Albuquerque ShotSpotter system needs data ... OPINION: Albuquerque ShotSpotter system needs data points to justify $3.2 million cost.
Sports Speak Up! Readers disappointed in how Lobo men's, ...
Featured Sports
I WAS OUTRAGED to learn that ... I WAS OUTRAGED to learn that the Duff twin sisters had abandoned the Lady Lobo basketball team on the eve of their team playing ...
Holly Holm, 41, commits to six more UFC fights
If anyone thought Albuquerque MMA fighter ... If anyone thought Albuquerque MMA fighter Holly Holm was close to being done at age 41, think again. When Holm steps into the Octagon ...
Free fishing and $500 checks: 6 things New Mexico ...
ABQnews Seeker
New Mexico lawmakers passed 246 bills ... New Mexico lawmakers passed 246 bills this session – most of which the governor has until April 7 to act on. Here’s a look ...
SpeakUp: Readers sound off against PNM/Avangrid merger
From the newspaper
OPINION: Readers oppose to PNM/Avangrid merger. OPINION: Readers oppose to PNM/Avangrid merger.
Top of Mind: What do you think about Albuquerque ...
ABQnews Seeker
OPINION: What do you think about ... OPINION: What do you think about Albuquerque Public Schools' proposed school calendar?
Editorial: BernCo taxpayers stuck with $7M error
OPINION: BernCo's misuse of federal funds ... OPINION: BernCo's misuse of federal funds is going to unnecessarily cost taxpayers $7.1 million.
Editorial: APS must get a handle on guns ...
From the Editorial Board: Growing problem ... From the Editorial Board: Growing problem of guns on campuses erodes confidence that APS schools are safe.