In the past years, big data has revolutionized the way much of our connecting, engaging, working and responding is done. Big data has also captured the attention and imagination of everyone, in its impact and potential. It is only natural that when an international event with major consequences occurs, questions arise about Big Data. Is big data helping today? Could it help? How?
In this three-part blog series, I’ll explore the Zika health crisis afflicting societies around the world and how big data can or should be used to help, based on its strengths and relevant applications in healthcare and life sciences.
Today’s most recent world health crisis is Zika. Zika fever is the disease caused by the Zika virus. Patients with Zika fever, when symptomatic, may display “fever, red eyes, joint pain, headache, and a maculopapular rash.” The symptoms are mild, and similar to a few other mosquito-borne viral infections. However, if the virus is passed from a mother prenatally, the neonate often is born with microcephaly, a birth defect. It is incurable.
So far, the Zika epidemic has spread rapidly. Today, it is endemic to a minority of continents and countries worldwide. Over 3,000 children have neurodevelopmental disorders due to Zika. Humans are racing to understand Zika, just as the virus is infecting humans who move to new parts of the world and spread the disease. We have many goals: understand the disease, create a vaccine, create tests to identify patients who have Zika, stop the spread of Zika, use the Zika phenomenon to find ways to cure microcephaly, and more.
So how is big data helping with the fight against Zika today? And where could it help if more aggressively applied to Zika? Big data is so impressive in its insights, the real answer might be the converse: where isn’t big data helping or where can’t it be applied? Big data is most commonly applied in epidemics before and after they occur, and at both the patient level and the population level. One is safe imagining big data has a role to play everywhere except perhaps at the point of care during treatment. Big data helps us to understand who has it, who will have it, what it is, how it is spreading, what happened, and how to avoid it in the future. It can even help understand how to get vaccines to the right places before it is needed.
In the next part of this blog series, I’ll dive into key learnings from last year’s Ebola crisis that can shed some light on ways big data can help address Zika.