Emerging technology can help in mainly two ways.
Firstly, through harnessing the power of Big Data, information from previous outbreaks, and studies conducted independently around the world, can be collated to help predict where a deadly zoonotic virus will strike next.
The vast availability of health data today means that data must be intelligently handled, using the right tools to derive helpful trends.
For instance, Google Flu Trends collated data from users’ searches to estimate influenza activity, and was found to show strong correlation with official data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the 2009 flu pandemic.
The web-based app Supramap uses genomic data to track the global movement of avian influenza virus.
An algorithm developed by HealthMap, a digital system bringing together data from myriad sources to deliver real-time information about disease outbreaks, actually indicated early signs of the Ebola spread in West Africa!
Clearly, when harnessed well, the large cache of data available can aid in predicting potential outbreaks and allowing authorities sufficient time to implement preventative measures.
Secondly, technology can be used to facilitate more effective communications between health workers managing responses to these epidemics.
Clearly, tackling zoonoses is a responsibility that requires the aid of not just doctors, but veterinarians and other scientific health-related professionals, as well.
As per the One Health concept, which recognises that animals, humans and the environment together play an important role in influencing our health, collaboration is needed between many distinct and independent sectors, for an efficient response against zoonotic outbreaks to be mounted.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak, under the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, a network of 11 leading laboratories collaborated via teleconferences to identify the cause of the disease, and develop diagnostic tests.
The creation of a cross-border Antibiotic Stewardship Programme, a German-Dutch collaboration, successfully reduced the incidence of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) transmission in hospitals.
With the ease of communications afforded by technology, this makes it far easier for information from different countries affected by a zoonotic disease, and different health professionals, to be shared and discussed.
This facilitates more effective handling of global epidemics through inter-sector collaboration.
With three-quarters of emerging diseases being zoonoses, we urgently need to find an efficient way of collecting data on zoonotic diseases, utilising it well to prevent severe social and economic damage, and of communicating effectively to coordinate responses to the next pandemic.
Technology could be the answer to this conundrum, and aid greatly in identifying, and indeed defeating, the mysterious zoonotic Disease X which threatens to bring the next global pandemic.
* This article is the second part of a 2-part series about zoonosis and how technology can help in the fight against zoonosis.