Predicting the Spread of Emerging Infectious Diseases

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Editor’s note: This article is by James Kaufman, IBM Research manager, Healthcare Information Infrastructure and Computer Science.
The box-office hit “Contagion,” a movie about a lethal airborne virus that kills within days, shed a realistic light on how public health officials can use data to predict the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale and answer the age-old question, ‘what if’ before it gets asked.
Recognizing the need to see what the potential spread of a pandemic might be for a given country, geographic region, or world over the course of days, weeks and months, IBM Research started putting some processing muscle into the fight against world health problems by collaborating on a new age of science-based, data-centric disease modeling.
Starting the creation of the Global Pandemic Initiative in 2006, IBM built a community of users around its epidemiological modeling framework, called the Spatio Temporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM). Issued under the Eclipse license, it is an open source toolkit and application that allows epidemiologists, public health officials and students to collaborate and share data and models for infectious diseases on a common platform. So, while a graduate student in Africa could be working on mathematics, you might have a public health official working on particular ways of modeling.
STEM uses large data sets on such things as airport and highway traffic and county infrastructures with a wide range of variables, such as the infectiousness of a disease and the availability and distribution of a vaccine. This allows people to look at and understand different scenarios, get insight into what the impact of decisions might be and, in some cases, potentially prevent the spread of such diseases.
Today, the Eclipse Foundation will release a new version of STEM. Jointly developed by IBM Research, the German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment, and contributors from several universities, STEM V1.3 will provide many new features, capabilities, and data including:
  • Support for modeling food borne disease including a new “Population Transformer” to simulate food production and food mediated disease transmission.
  • Ten years of Historical Climate and Earth Science Data for use in creating models of insect vector populations (and how they are affected by climage)
  • A Vector Capacity model for the the Anopheles Mosquito
  • A Malaria Disease Model
  • Multi-serotype models for Dengue Fever Disease
Malaria outbreak as related to temperature & rainfall.

As an open source application available through the Eclipse Foundation, STEM is free and completely open to any scientist or researcher who chooses to build on and contribute to its growing library of models, computer code, and denominator data. Check out the new release and demos at

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