The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deployed a new software tool that is making it easier for officials to find and track people exposed to the deadly Ebola virus.
Hundreds have died since the virus started spreading throughout West Africa in March, and many more carrying the disease have been quarantined, including two American aid workers who’ve since been brought home for treatment. CDC’s Epi Info viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF) application, however, will attempt to tackle one of the most difficult parts of detecting Ebola’s spread: contact tracing.
Once people have symptoms, it’s not hard to detect if they’re carrying the virus. However, before that they could’ve come in contact with someone, contracted it and gone about their lives normally, all the while spreading it to others.
The Epi Info HVF tool uses data collection, epidemiological modeling, data analytics and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) MapObjects software to track the infected and produce virus transmission diagrams for outbreak visualization and accelerated contract tracing.
“With a disease as often fatal as Ebola, quickly identifying and following up with those who may have been exposed is key to saving lives and containing the outbreak,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement. “Epi Info, the ‘Swiss Army knife’ of field-deployed epidemiologists, can now help to track disease more quickly.”
Epi Info is an open source platform CDC has been using since the ’90s for managing disease outbreaks. Built on Epi Info, the VHF tool was built in collaboration between CDC’s Epi Info team at the Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services and the Viral Special Pathogens Branch in the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.
CDC began developing VHF in 2012 after Ebola and Marburg outbreaks struck Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The tool is used not only for Ebola, but also for any other viral hemorrhagic fevers, such as Marburg, Rift Valley and Lassa.
“As Ebola outbreaks are rare, this is the first time we’re getting to put this tool through its paces,” said Asad Islam, CDC Epi Info team lead. “Given that the Epi Info VHF tool has a tiny IT footprint and easily works in places with limited network connectivity, that it automatically updates as new information is added, and that it offers daily reports to guide follow-up, we are cautiously optimistic that it will make a significant difference.”