Open-access neglected diseases database

A group of European and African researchers have published a paper in PloS announcing the development of a potentially important database for mapping neglected tropical diseases. While the idea is pretty simple — to integrate various survey-based studies of infection into a single geo-referenced database — the output is potentially powerful, providing public health officials better maps of disease outbreaks. With scarce resources, accurate targeting of public health efforts for such diseases is critical.

This map, generated from the current version of the database, depicts schistosomiasis hotspots:

This is an open-access initiative — and the authors provide some interesting reflections concerning the limitations and challenges of open -access, some of which I paste here:

Despite the benefits of free and public data repositories, data sharing is a challenge. Data owners may hesitate to provide their data, especially when they have not yet been published. However, confidential data can be masked through a special database feature as explained in the Methods section. As more and more data are included into the GNTD database, the current lack in the geographical extent of location-specific survey data across countries and regions will become less critical. Undoubtedly, a host of valuable information exists within countries, in the form of unpublished local archived sources. Efforts are ongoing to access this information with the help of our in-country scientific partners in ministries of health and research institutions by visiting the countries of interest to strengthen and further expand our global network of collaborators. Nevertheless, it is likely that there will remain significant areas with scarce data because no surveys have been conducted or data are not readily accessible or have been lost in the face of civil war, political unrest, or inappropriate archiving procedures. Such geographical lacks of survey data might be only known to local experts while the international community might not be aware.

— These are fair and good points that need to be kept in mind as various open-access data initiatives across a range of sectors promise to make inroads on various aspects of African development.

(Credit: reported on this article/database.)

Could big parties be (a) public health strategy?

Last week, I received my annual flu vaccination at Princeton’s “Flu Fest.” It seemed to me such a success that I wonder if something like it couldn’t be replicated in low resource settings — i.e., in Africa?

No, the idea is not that one person comes with the flu and kisses everyone else to get over the flu early in the season (and I have heard about kids’ chicken pox parties like this, which I understand is a really bad strategy). Flu Fest is an almost military-style mobilization in which the campus is invited to come to a huge conference room over a series of 3 days to receive their free shot or nasal spray. The event is widely advertised, marked with tons of balloons and signs, and according to the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, about 5000-6000 people are vaccinated each year.

Along with the vaccine, representatives from various health-related organizations give away free stuff, ranging from hand sanitizers to disposable thermometers. You can get your blood pressure checked, get advice for relieving stress, and learn about other local medical options.

I have no idea about the economics of this or the efficacy of such a program relative to the model of having local clinics that are simply available each and every day to provide vaccinations and other services for people… but it did make me wonder if a kind of “traveling circus” couldn’t move through parts of Africa and/or other low resource settings to literally blitz the local population with valuable public health modalities. If delivered as a big party, the way “flu fest” is here at Princeton, there might not be much stigma for attending, and one could simultaneously test for HIV, deliver vaccinations for infants, etc., and provide other valuable information. If it were advertised a few days ahead of time by an advance team, turnout would likely be high.

I don’t spend much time on this blog writing about my half-baked ideas for development strategies that might work, if there is not good evidence behind them, but maybe someone else will devote the time to elaborate why this strategy might (or might not) work.