Hi-tech helps reduce health threat at mass gatherings

Canadian Dr. Kamran Khan looks at a digitised 3-D map of the world at the time of the World Cup last June showing the origins and number of air passengers flying into South Africa that month.


 


 

It also shows disease outbreaks in those departure locales at exactly the same time: London, England, 29,454 passengers, mumps; Dakar, Senegal, 3,777 passengers, tuberculosis; Singapore, 5,331 passengers, foot and mouth disease.

The tool, a product of Khan's Bio.Diaspora project, seems obvious: putting together passenger data and health data to prepare for health emergencies in gatherings of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

But until recently, precise airline data could not be collated with disease outbreak information for planners of mass gatherings.

At a three-day symposium on medicine and mass gatherings in the Saudi city of Jeddah this week, sponsored by British medical journal The Lancet, Khan's project got lots of attention from professionals who have run everything from music festivals to the Olympics to the biggest annual gathering of all, the hajj pilgrimage, which brings more than two million Muslims to nearby Mecca.

Mass gatherings - defined as any large event with the potential to overwhelm local health service capabilities - pose particularly complex security and health challenges, said Brian McCloskey, who is the leader in health planning for the 2012 London Olympics.

"Small things become big things quickly... We have to respond to things at a much lower threshold," he said.

The hajj has long experienced health emergencies, from stampedes to outbreaks of meningitis.

The pace of the ritual requirements of the four-day event, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for many Mulsims, raises the risks.

"The majority of pilgrims are older, which increases the complications," said Ziad al-Memish, assistant deputy minister at the Saudi health ministry, which co-sponsored the conference.

Last year, the threat of the newly-surfaced H1N1 swine flu sparked a global mobilisation to limit outbreaks during the pilgrimage and prevent it from accelerating the disease's spread worldwide.

In the end, the flu blew itself out, with the help of vaccinations, monitoring and a less potent than expected virus. Less than 130 infections were detected during the event and only five pilgrims died.

But it demonstrated the need to have detailed data on the origins and destinations of people attending the hajj and other such events.

Working together with HealthMap, a well-established online disease early-alert system, Toronto-based Bio.diaspora aims to understand the air transport system as a conduit for disease.

"In the span of just a few weeks, it can disseminate the diseases to places they didn't exist," said Khan.

"We are for the first time putting the two pieces together... We actually can potentially confront infectious disease threats globally before they find their way into mass gatherings."

For events like the hajj, the researchers behind the Bio.diaspora project at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto are aiming to collate traveller origin and disease locations down to the district level.

For instance, Khan says, for the hajj they would know better to focus on a disease outbreak in Indonesia if it was in predominantly Muslim East Java than if it was from largely Christian Irian Jaya.

"We just want to prioritise where we put our energy," he said.

Mass gatherings are not only to be watched to defend against outbreaks; the hajj, for one, has been used as a way to advance protective vaccinations.

Saudi authorities for years have required vaccinations for diseases such as polio and meningitis from visitors, giving other governments the impetus to institute such programmes, said David Heymann, head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House in Britain.

The hajj has been "a very important contribution to the world eradication of polio," he said.

Another tool for mass event health managers is social media, said White House national security staff member Dr. David Marcozzi, who oversaw health issues for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration in January 2009.

His group monitored Twitter and other online media to keep up with how the two-million strong crowd coped with the sub-freezing temperatures, at the height of the flu season.

The new media allowed them to spot potential problems by location in the huge crowd in downtown Washington DC.

"We were monitoring the population on what were their concerns and challenges," he said.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

    £26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

    Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

    £6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

    Day In a Page

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works