Pitt researchers publish a century's worth of data on contagious diseases

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As they put together models and simulations of infectious diseases for past research, University of Pittsburgh professors Donald Burke and Willem van Panhuis repeatedly had to delve into written historical records, painstakingly digitizing them disease by disease to analyze the data. After doing so piece by piece, the researchers decided to tackle the whole pile -- weekly reports for incidences of 56 diseases, spanning more than a century.

That research -- the digitizing of more than 87 million individual cases of contagious diseases reported between 1888 and 2011 -- was published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"After doing it 10 or 20 times, we decided it would make more sense to go back and digitize everything -- to just bite the bullet and do the whole corpus," said Dr. Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health.

The researchers named the data set Project Tycho (www.tycho.pitt.edu), after Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer whose detailed observations were later used by his assistant Johannes Kepler, to derive the laws of planetary motion. Dr. Burke and Dr. van Panhuis expect that their data will be used by other scientists studying infectious diseases as they relate to everything from weather patterns to population density.

Past evidence on disease outbreaks has proved useful in countries such as the United Kingdom and Thailand to gain new insights into disease transmission, the researchers said.

"If we can analyze the patterns of epidemics in the past, what caused them to be large one year and small the next year, we'll be in a much stronger position to predict the course of epidemics and the potential impact of interventions," Dr. Burke said.

The researchers conducted one study of their own before making the data available to the public, investigating the effect of vaccines on the prevalence of certain diseases. They found that the incidences of some diseases, such as measles and rubella, fell dramatically and almost immediately after the rollout of the vaccines.

"We saw in those displays how there were some very abrupt declines," said Dr. van Panhuis. "I had not expected those very sudden changes."

They also noted the resurgence of certain diseases, such as pertussis (also known as whooping cough), despite the availability of vaccines. A 2012 pertussis outbreak, for example, was the largest since 1959. They hope that the new data availability will help pinpoint causes of the resurgence and determine appropriate public health campaigns to improve vaccination.

Additional co-authors from the Pitt School of Public Health include John Grefenstette, Su Yon Jung, Nian Shong Chok, Anne Cross, Heather Eng, Bruce Lee and Shawn Brown, all currently or formerly of Pitt Public Health. Other co-authors are Vladimir Zadorozhny of Pitt's School of Information Sciences and Derek Cummings of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published November 27, 2013 5:17 PM

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