A new way to map the spread of disease

Infectious disease outbreaks spread rapidly in a globalized world. Scientists have come up with a better way to map and track epidemics.
Map of flight
Dirk Brockmann

The Atlantic has published a very cool report about mapping disease outbreaks.

You hear a lot of chatter about how the new modern, globalized era has changed the way infectious disease spreads around the world.

Nope. Disease still spreads the same way as it did during the Black Plague or the Spanish Flu Pandemic. People cough and wipe their snot on things, or other people, and the microbes have a field day.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a new and better way to monitor outbreaks.

No, what’s mostly new is the speed at which diseases spread and the wider distribution due to air travel. Dirk Brockmann, a theoretical physicist and professor of complex systems at Northwestern University, has long been interested in how evolving modes of long-distance transportation have changed many things: disease dynamics, the spread of information, the transport of species from one ecosystem to others where they don’t belong. Here’s one of his maps of an outbreak:

In the article, Brockmann explains that the typical geographic map of a disease outbreak looks random. Mapped using his method, it looks a lot more predictable.

“The real power of this insight comes from its diagnostic potential. Imagine a scenario where a new pandemic – its origins unknown – has already appeared in parts of China, Buenos Aires, Quebec, and Vancouver. This new representation of distance can help pinpoint the origin of the outbreak.”

Good read and very cool video illustrations.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.