By Clifton Leaf and Sy Mukherjee
March 23, 2017

Good morning, readers. This is Sy with your daily dose of health news.

A team of researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set out to answer a question: How did the Arkansas mumps outbreak of 2016 pick up steam – and, specifically, how much of a factor did vaccination rates play in the regions hardest-hit by the infectious disease?

To answer, Maimuna Majumder and her team at HealthMap, a software-driven epidemiology outfit based out of the Boston Children’s Hospital, collected troves of local public health data to begin mapping out the outbreak’s progression.

There have been 3,000 mumps cases in Arkansas across 33 counties since the flareup originated last August. Majumder and the HealthMap team collected county-wide data that was being released by the Arkansas Department of Public Health, which included information such as the age, location, and school districts of the (mostly) children who contracted mumps.

But, as Majumder notes in a piece for NPR, simply having this data wasn’t quite enough to suss out the outbreak’s overall progression since it lacked historical context. And so the researchers used a HealthMap tool called the Digital Surveillance System to crawl through social media and news reports and then turn it into information that can be used for epidemiological studies. This same tool has previously been used to predict and map flu outbreaks based on local trends and Google searches.

With this new information in hand, the team was then able to project exactly how many cases had resulted over the course of the outbreak. And, even more interestingly, the scientists were able to piece together how low the vaccination rates were in the large Arkansas counties from where the disease spread by combining surveillance data on vaccinations and mathematical models. Their conclusions? The communities where the outbreak hit particularly hard likely had two-dose mumps vaccination rates of anywhere from 70% to 89% – considerably lower than the requisite 96% immunization rate which is thought to provide herd immunity.

And there it is. An epidemiological mystery solved with the help of big data and some smart analytics.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


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