Mapping and modeling software is helping to track confirmed cases of Ebola infections and to predict where the outbreak might spread geographically over time, according to Chris Woods, M.D., with the Duke Global Health Institute.

“What’s going to happen? This is where there’s been a lot of discussion and modeling,” said Woods, a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Pathology at Duke University, who spoke Oct. 14 in Durham, N.C., at a summit on geomedicine—the intersection of geography and medicine.

Citing modeling data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Martin Meltzer, a researcher at the CDC National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Woods revealed that there are basically two scenarios for the Ebola epidemic over the next six months.

The best case scenario, he said, is one in which “70 percent of those affected are put into healthcare systems and into isolation, removed from the general population—where it’s about 18 percent right now.” If that happens, he said, the epidemic can be controlled and “we’ll see numbers of cases in the tens of thousands.”

However, Woods warned that “if things, conversely, continue as they have been—doubling rates every couple of weeks—we’re looking at 1 to 1.5 million cases over the next six months.” And, he added, “it increases the likelihood we’re going to have more and more exposures of the type we’ve had in Dallas.” 

Containing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa so that it doesn’t spread to other areas is critical, according to Woods. Geographic information systems (GIS) are helping public health officials to understand and visualize geospatial data in ways that can reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the infections in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts to enable more informed decisions about interventions.

Woods said that Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) sent a dedicated cartographer/GIS officer to Guinea in March 2014 to support local and international medical teams there on the ground battling the Ebola outbreak. The GIS officer was charged with producing general overview maps as well as topical maps that supported different aspects of the operation. During the eight weeks of his mission, the GIS officer produced 109 maps including specialized maps that visualized population density and the spread of the Ebola virus.

Contact tracing--the identification and diagnosis of persons who may have come into contact with an infected person—is another mapping technique that has been used effectively in combating the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and can stop the spread of Ebola, he said. “You can use any of your mapping tools for contacts and those quarantined,” added Woods.

With the recent confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States, in particular, Woods believes that the value of geomedicine in dealing with deadly infectious diseases is starting to gain traction. “This is a tremendous opportunity and I think there will be funding to support that opportunity,” he concluded. “Additionally, I think you’ll have a lot more receptive ears.”

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