The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which is based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, launched a Outbreak Science Initiative earlier this year to address the challenges of fast-moving epidemics.
Incremental advances that have defined public health in the last half century have been repeatedly outpaced by what are often sudden and swift epidemics. In addition, most innovations in preventing and containing outbreaks have come from medical countermeasures like vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics rather than advancements in epidemiological practice. Look no further than HIV and Ebola.
This gap is evident in the outdated and inefficient use of computational tools and resources. In any given U.S. public health department, collected data is likely to be inefficiently structured and stored, limiting its usefulness. These data are often analyzed for a single project, if at all. Repeat analyses, like those used to produce regular reports, are often performed manually, which wastes time and creates errors. The existing systems are ineffective during ‘peacetime’, while data and analysis problems are magnified several times over during an outbreak.
“Far too frequently the decision-making process in an outbreak response is disconnected from the analytical insights needed to determine how best to plan for and contain outbreaks,” said Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Center and leader of the outbreak science project team. “With sufficient investment, outbreak science can transform preparedness and response in the United States.”
Dr. Rivers and her team coined the term “outbreak science” to mean a subfield of epidemiology that uses infectious disease modeling, data science and visualization, and modern data practices for outbreak response. The goal of outbreak science is to connect public health decision makers with the most current data and analytics necessary to determine how best to contain outbreaks. Although this type of expertise has been influential in several major epidemics, it is often tapped by response officials in sporadic, ad hoc, and pro bono partnerships.
The Center will be working over the next year to develop a plan for an outbreak science program to support the U.S. government in responding to infectious disease threats. The program would connect the nation’s top disease outbreak scientists with federal public health response operations, where they could produce the forecasts, models, and analyses that decision makers need to allocate resources, compare interventions, and assess progress on outbreak containment. This capability would improve our nation’s ability to respond to outbreaks quickly and effectively.