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The Importance of Data in the Ebola Outbreak

By Monica Graham, communications officer, BID Initiative

Oct 15, 2014

Posted in ,


Image credit: Reuters/Umaru Fofana

As health workers attempt to tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, access to reliable data is becoming increasingly important. With the Better Immunization Data (BID) Initiative, we focus on solutions in immunization that can be applied to other health interventions, enabling healthcare workers to properly collect data and creating a data-use culture at the local level. Using data to inform decisions and identify trends can be a powerful tool in helping to prevent outbreaks from spreading and devastating healthcare systems as we have seen with Ebola.

In Foreign Policy’s article, “Why Big Data Missed the Early Warning Signs of Ebola,” Kalev Leetaru discusses that although big data may help identify impending disease outbreaks such as Ebola, access to better data at a local level will allow us to better listen and understand local communities and therefore, provide them with the necessary resources to contain disease outbreaks.

Additionally, in a recent article on Reuters, “Battle against Ebola hampered by gaps in data, hidden cases,” Tom Miles states that health facilities are most likely under-reporting cases of Ebola since not all patients seek medical care and the weak chain of data collection and use, including potentially contaminated paper records, results in a lost history of patients. Hunting down these patients’ status’ in their villages is difficult, leaving gaps in data and causing inefficiencies with correctly allocating relief resources.

Innovative technology support is a driving topic of conversation on the Ebola outbreak as organizations and health officials strive to arm health workers to effectively treat and educate the growing number of patients while keeping themselves safe. An eHealth News Africa article, “Global collaborative for Ebola communities,” discusses mHealth support through the US-based mHero, a combination of IntraHealth’s software and UNICEF’s mobile phone SMS platform to be tested in Liberia. The real-time communication system will allow the Ministry of Health to broadcast reports on emerging cases, safety protocols, and training and reference materials to health workers’ mobile phones.

In the background of the Ebola outbreak lies the issues countries were struggling to handle before the outbreak such as malaria, diarrhea and maternal health. According to the Reuters article, “Healthcare crippled as Ebola overwhelms hospitals in Liberia,” patients don’t have access to urgent medical care or they are too afraid to visit health clinics for fear of being exposed to Ebola, disabling already fragile health systems.

While the BID Initiative is designed for immunization solutions, the power of data collection and data use coupled with leveraging existing, innovative technologies to empower healthcare workers could also be harnessed in the fight against outbreaks such as Ebola. We will continue to follow developments in the outbreak as they relate to the BID Initiative’s efforts and encourage you to share your experience and findings in the comments below.

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