A disease-tracking website developed by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers has been able to track the spread of Ebola in real-time, often before new cases are reported by the World Health Organization.
The eight-year-old site, called healthmap.org, uses current feeds from social media, online news aggregators, and Twitter chats, along with official public health reports, to provide a comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases.
Traffic to the site has risen in recent days from those seeking information on the Ebola outbreak devastating West Africa, according to hospital spokeswoman Keri Stedman.
Users of the Healthmap site typically include local health departments, public health agencies, and international travelers to countries dealing with deadly infectious diseases.
“The news reports and social media posts aren’t always reliable, but in general they provide an up-to-date sense of what’s happening,” said John Brownstein, co-founder of HealthMap and director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Informatics Program.
Sometimes it takes days or weeks for the WHO to confirm illnesses or deaths. In fact, Healthmap had the first inkling of Ebola more than a week before any official announcement of an outbreak: On March 14, the site first picked up news reports about a “mystery hemorrhagic fever” that killed 8 in Guinea, but the WHO didn’t officially report on the Ebola outbreak until March 23.