Published February 17, 2014
It’s a terrifying doomsday scenario: A novel infectious disease is sweeping through the world’s population, and health officials have only a day or two to stop its deadly spread.
While this may sound like the plot of a movie thriller, health officials argue that an event of this kind could become a reality sometime in the near future. According to researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago, new drug-resistant infectious diseases are appearing more frequently – and are spreading faster than ever before.
With the ability to strike anywhere in the world at any given time, these pathogens are not only a major threat to public health, but they also place a substantial burden on the global economy.
In order to best address the next outbreak, Dr. Eva Lee, a systems engineering professor at Georgia Tech Univeristy, presented a novel software program at AAAS. The program, RealOpt, sifts through massive amounts of data to better optimize decision-making during the event of an emergency scenario – especially in the case of a deadly outbreak.
According to Lee, one of the critical needs during a pandemic crisis is for health care officials to make important decisions very quickly.
“This is the first motivation: How do you mobilize limited resources during a stressful time?” Lee told FoxNews.com. “Also with people that are well and worried, we have to protect them…. So people have to make lots of decisions within a short period of time. This prompted us to design a system to guide them through that to make smart decisions.”
To develop her system, Lee and her team utilized a number of data sets, including population demographics, socioeconomic information, hospital data and scientific literature regarding a range of infectious diseases – such as the flu, smallpox, anthrax, and more. With these numbers, she programmed software that can produce detailed instructions with very little input from the user.
In the event that an infectious pathogen emerges, health officials can input into RealOpt information regarding what disease is spreading, the geographical area in need of service, and the resources at their disposal – and within seconds, the system will provide users with instructions on how to proceed.
“It could be the central command in the region, so for example, [the CDC in] Atlanta,” Lee said. “…They can say, ‘Okay, this is the affected area with 5.2 million people,’ and the system will tell them…where to put up all the medical dispensing sites where citizens can come in and get instruments to protect themselves.”
Lee explained that RealOpt will provide information on how officials can best operate these dispensing sites, approximately how many children and elderly individuals they can expect, and which patients will require the most attention. The software even takes into account the different languages spoken in different regions, and will let health officials know what kinds of interpreters are needed in certain areas.
“That’s the prediction that’s really good. We understand there’s difficulty with language barriers – especially with having children around,” Lee said. “So it makes them deal with the human factors, which is critical during a crisis.”
While the software program is designed to require as little initial information as possible, it also has a function that allows users to describe the different types of personnel they have at their disposal. For example, health officials can list the number of nurses, doctors, and volunteers that are available to work, and the program will explain where each individual should go and what jobs he or she should accomplish.
RealOpt boasts a number of other features, including the ability to collect information from Twitter to track trends and individual citizen information within different geographical regions. But most importantly, Lee said the program is very timely, providing information at a rate fast enough to stop too many people from getting sick and spreading disease.
“Timeline is important. The system is designed to be capable of assisting in a direct event, and the idea is to protect the entire population in 36 hours,” Lee said. “…And if there is a delay in vaccinations, it will create a huge percentage of infections, and that will collapse the health care system.”