Mapping mpox: Location data and pandemics in the wake of COVID-19
It has asked questions around accessibility of services, especially emergency responses, ongoing patient management, and testing and vaccination equipment. Typically, these questions have centred on the speed and effective reach of healthcare response.
A central answer to these questions from researchers, healthcare providers, and policymakers alike, has been generated via extensive use of location data. Location data has offered real time tracking of the virus, to provide one of the most comprehensive pictures of the spread of a virus anywhere, ever, and help plan for effective vaccination roll-out, distribution of tests and localised lockdowns and other preventative measures.
The proliferation of this data and ‘dashboard’ representations of it such as that by The Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University has, in effect, ‘democratised’ knowledge and understanding of the virus itself, along with how nations are coping with it. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division (UNSD) have curated some of these dashboards on its COVID-19 Data Hub.
Facing up to the increased likelihood of pandemics
The very worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may now have passed for much of the global populace, but this by no means signals the end of pandemics for humanity. In fact, some predict this may simply be the beginning of a period of more frequent epidemics/pandemics.
We are already seeing increased concern over the spread of further viruses including with the recent mpox outbreak. Mpox has been reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from over 50 countries, across five WHO regions between 1 January and 22 June 2022. Mapping and tracking the spread of the outbreak will prove hugely important in preventing the outbreak from developing further into an epidemic or pandemic.
An historic precedent of mpox and location data
Fortunately, there is precedent for the use of location data in the monitoring of mpox, giving health officials an immediate advantage in the fight. A geospatial analysis on cases of the virus collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between 2000 to 2015 has helped researchers understand the pattern of spread of infection.
Previously, the virus’s spatial and temporal distribution in the DRC was poorly understood, thus predicting its spread proved difficult. Researchers performed SaTScan® , a geospatial statistics analysis, that identified clusters of mpox cases, with significant primary clusters detected in the districts of Sankuru and Tshuapa. From here, they found a centrifugal pattern of spread, with the primary clusters extending over time to several neighbouring districts.
Knowing the modes of transmission in this way, that is, the speed and pattern of spread, of a virus, is a powerful way of better forearming responders and health officials to allocate resources to the right locations, in appropriate quantities, and at the most effective moments. Needless to say, each group of viruses behaves differently, so the approach is not fool proof, as it will not predict previously unseen or unstudied viruses. However, the more location data collected and analysed, such as that in the DRC mpox study, the more accurate the predictions that can be made, and therefore the more resilient nations can be in the face of potential pandemics.
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Director of International