Science Wednesday: Putting an End to a Scary Story

News that the 2016 Summer Olympics will take place under the shadow of Dengue Fever brings to mind a story from my summer of 1975.

I spent much of that season backpacking, horseback riding and climbing across Colorado with Boy Scout Troop 176 of Montvale, N.J. Our scout master, Tom, called these trips “superadventures,” and they were—I learned lessons in woodcraft, leadership and plain ol’ self reliance that have served me well to this day.

One of those lessons was about the fragility of the human body. Tom had picked up malaria in his tour in Viet Nam with the Special Forces. During our pack-horse trip in the mountains, the malaria parasites in his system became active, felling him like a tree under the axe. He spent much of that part of the trip in his tent, fever dreaming and being tended by the adults and the senior scouts.

This made no small impression on us: We loved Tom and were terrified of him in equal measure. Tough, just and virtuous to the point of near-impossibility, he seemed to stand seven feet tall, and while not a loud man, he could employ a certain warning tenor in his voice that made you listen. To see him laid low by a microbe was a life lesson indeed.

Kids have an incredible ability to shrug off things that scare the bejeezus out of us adults; I don’t recall being particularly worried. But today, I’m frustrated that, over a hundred years after the Spanish American War taught the U.S. military a lesson in tropical disease it has never forgotten, these ancient enemies still threaten a large part of the human race.

Somebody ought to do something, as they say. Well, PSC’s Public Health Group is doing something about it.

  • Our CLARA agent-based model is simulating the interactions between humans and mosquitoes in Brazil—site of the 2016 Summer Games—Thailand and Australia. The idea is to test methods for breaking the mosquito-host chain that enable such “vector-borne” diseases to spread.
  • In Benin, India, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, Thailand and Vietnam, the HERMES collaboration between PSC, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pittsburgh is modeling vaccine distribution networks, identifying under-appreciated bottlenecks in getting shots to the people who need them. Once identified, these bottlenecks are sometimes relatively easy to fix.
  • In collaboration with the University of Notre Dame, PSC is creating the electronic infrastructure supporting VecNet, a Web-based clearinghouse of ideas and methods that will enable researchers, clinicians, aid agency personnel and government decision makers to share data and test tools for fighting malaria in the Solomon Islands, Kenya, and elsewhere.
  • Nor are we neglecting the home front. When deployed, Apollo will create a Web-based electronic bridge that allows otherwise incompatible public health models to communicate with each other through a common language known as an ontology. Grist for this mill includes PSC’s FRED and FluTe, programs that model disease spread through a separate electronic “agent” for every human in a population, and GAIA, which can take that information and display it geographically. The common display of multiple types of information should offer public health officials new insights into halting disease spread.

The common factor in all these projects is that the sheer volume of epidemiological and public health data is too massive to understand without some serious technological help, and that different actors in the public health sector may be holding pieces that others could use to great effect. Seeing the problems, the opportunities, and sharing that information with someone who has a tool you may not represents one of our best hopes for eradicating a number of deadly diseases—not just controlling them, but making them no more than a scary story from our past.

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