Hotline traffic can predict disease outbreaks

Image: Mosquito
Mosquitoes are carries of dengue fever. (Credit: CDC)

Researchers from the University of Washington and elsewhere say they can forecast the rise and fall of dengue fever outbreaks as much as three weeks in advance by analyzing the patterns of phone calls to public-health hotlines.

Dengue fever is spread by a mosquito-borne virus that infects millions of people a year. The infection causes a flu-like illness and can produce potentially lethal complications. There’s no specific cure or vaccine available, but early detection and proper medical care can reduce fatality rates below 1 percent, the World Health Organization says.

The researchers’ experiment, described today in a paper published by the journalScience Advances, focused on cases of the disease reported in Lahore, Pakistan. A telephone hotline was set up in Lahore in the wake of a 2011 dengue epidemic to help the public deal with the disease. Researchers analyzed more than 300,000 calls made to the hotline during 2012 and 2013 to see how many came from which locale, on a block-by-block basis.

They found that call volumes spiked in advance of two outbreaks, in August of 2012 and 2013, and rose at the same time as a dramatic increase in hospital cases in the fall of 2013. “The appeal of our model is its usefulness despite its sheer simplicity,” the authors wrote.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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