While pandemic diseases have killed millions of people through the centuries, today’s digital technologies such as big data and predictive analytics are providing medical science with tools to intervene before they reach pandemic proportions.

In February, the Zika virus was detected in a pregnant Spanish woman who was thousands of miles from where the initial outbreak was reported. Subsequently, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Zika virus has “explosive pandemic potential” and predicted that it might infect as many as three million people in the next 12 months.

While pandemic diseases have previously killed millions of people through the centuries, today’s digital technologies now provide medical science with tools to intervene in viral diseases before they reach pandemic proportions. Global health systems that are experiencing unexpected viral outbreaks can now respond faster to those existing circumstances while also predicting and preventing them from spreading further.

How a Virus Becomes a Pandemic

Pandemics are disease outbreaks of global proportions caused when a “novel” virus emerges in human society. The disease spreads when antiviral medicine fails to halt its progress, and when mobile populations carry it outside its initial eruption area. Although the WHO has a six-stage pandemic response plan to handle a large outbreak of any infectious disease, including Zika, it is unlikely that there would be sufficient stores of vaccines, antibiotics or antiviral agents to treat the anticipated need.

Technology Improved Responses in Recent Epidemics

The prevention of a pandemic is the preferred course of action, but accomplishing that effort requires that appropriate tools and systems are in place. Big Data is just one of those tools that have already been proven critically to the prevention of these global health incidents.

In 2014, when the Ebola virus emerged in Guinea, it had already migrated hundreds of miles from its expected location in Central Africa. The previous Ebola eruption had occurred a decade earlier and killed only 425 people, so local health officials weren’t terribly concerned about a pandemic when they discovered it again. Within weeks, however, the extent of the Ebola infection represented an unprecedented public health concern in three separate African countries and was poised to move even further into the African continent.

Adding to the tragedy, health officials ignored early computer models that predicted the spread of the disease. The models accessed data from census records, health clinics, and even cell phone records in order to establish the details of the outbreak, then track it as it grew. Healthmap, a website launched in 2006 by a team of epidemiologists, researchers, and programmers, had collected real-time reports of disease outbreaks and tracked their development. A local news report of a “strange disease” in the Guinean town of Macenta alerted Healthmap of the new Ebola burst nine days before the WHO reported its existence. It was only after the spread had occurred, infecting thousands more people, that the models were proven accurate.

Lessons Learned From Ebola Inform Zika Combatants

Analysis of the Ebola outbreak demonstrated that global health authorities needed better coordination, communication and integration of technologies to improve their response to potential pandemics. Predicting the growth of numbers of infected people did spur ramped-up production of medications, but identifying and moving toward the newest location of the outbreak proved impossible with the systems then in place. Those concerns may be moot as international health care systems prepare to manage the Zika threat.

Where Zika Is Now

As of February 5, reports of active transmission of the virus were coming from most of South American and all of the Central American countries. Australia, Alaska, the United States, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland and Denmark were also reporting new cases. Interestingly, several Southeast Asian countries, India and about one-third of African countries reported Zika infections before 2015, and it is not known now if those are related to the current outbreak. The disease is currently assumed to cause microcephaly in newborns. In 2014, Brazil had 167 reported microcephaly cases; in 2015, there were 1,248.

Where Zika Might be Going

According to Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious disease specialist and the founder of BlueDot.global, Florida might be the next infection center since it has a high volume of Brazilian travelers, an accommodating climate and a compatible mosquito species. (However, alarm is not necessary, says Kahn. Florida also has better housing and cleaner water systems, both of which would inhibit viral growth.)

Kahn and his fellow epidemiologists from labs and universities around the world are using Big Data to visualize how epidemics might spread. Alerted to an “unusual viral infection” in Brazil in May 2015, Kahn began amassing vast quantities of data, including hourly climate measurements and over 30 billion global flight itineraries from every one of the world’s commercial airports. By the date of the WHO announcement, Kahn’s team had created a “risk map” predicting the disease’s spread by adding to his database statistics detailing population densities, temperature maps and the known ranges of compatible mosquitoes. According to that model, in the Americas, Florida was the most likely candidate to host a Zika outbreak.

Known Unknowns

Predictive analytics use existing data to predict possible future outcomes. Kahn acknowledges that there are more unknowns than knowns about Zika right now. In the weeks since the announcement, a Venezuelan traveler from Texas may have gotten the disease through sex, which would inject another aspect of statistical data into the prediction model. Even still, his technology will assist today’s health responders to prepare for Zika or any viral activity that might target their locale.