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Icons of Progress

Tracking Infectious Diseases


In 1976, the World Health Organization (WHO) used an IBM ® System/370 at the United Nations’ International Computing Center in Geneva to precisely map trends and outbreaks of smallpox so it could best allocate its limited personnel and resources to the locations most in need. This effort contributed to the eventual eradication of the disease in the general population a few years later.

Since that time, IBM has evolved from enabling such efforts to becoming a leader in applying technology to improve healthcare—from identifying trends and demographics to help halt the spread of disease to increasing the ability of government institutions to deal with epidemics and pandemics. IBM has ushered in a new age of healthcare and bioinformatics by funding diverse, cross-disciplinary research, which—combined with an institutional strength in systems thinking and analysis—helps researchers better understand the organic, emergent nature of information systems, whether in businesses, cities or diseases.

Today, IBM researchers are partnering with the EuResist Network—a scientific collaboration led by universities from Germany, Italy and Sweden—focused on creating prediction models for HIV combination drug therapy for specific patients with specific viral profiles. The web-based analytical tool allows doctors to input patient data and receive a recommendation for the optimal drug cocktail. Recommendations have proven to be more than 76 percent accurate in their predictions, beating human experts 9 out of 10 times.

In 2008, IBM joined with the Nuclear Threat Initiative's Global Health and Security Initiative and the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance to create a unique technology that standardizes the method of sharing health information and automates the analysis of infectious disease outbreaks, in order to help contain diseases and minimize their impact. The web-based portal system, the Public Health Information Affinity Domain (PHIAD), provides public health organizations with the right decision-making tools to implement a fast, effective response to infectious disease outbreaks—even across geographic and political boundaries. PHIAD uses near-real-time information to facilitate fast response, and helps enable the secure exchange of data on both national and international levels with appropriate protection of privacy at all levels.

IBM also created the World Community Grid, a philanthropic venture that allows volunteer participants from around the world to donate their computer processing power to help solve large-scale analytical challenges. IBM provides free hosting, maintenance and support for the grid, as well as the hardware, software, technical services and infrastructure expertise. To date, World Community Grid has tackled the development of HIV/AIDS medication, muscular dystrophy and cancer research, human genome and proteome folding, clean energy research, and a project dedicated to improving the availability of nutritious rice crops globally.

In 2006, IBM and more than 20 major worldwide public health institutions, including the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced the Global Pandemic Initiative, a collaborative effort to help stem the spread of infectious diseases. IBM scientists formed healthcare "Innovation Centers" at the company's worldwide research laboratories to work with the global healthcare community in this collaborative effort.

Following the development of the IBM Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM) tool, designed to help forecast the spread of infectious diseases, IBM donated STEM as an open source tool to the Eclipse Project. Eclipse was created by IBM in November 2001 and is supported by a consortium of software vendors in a vendor-neutral and open, transparent community.

STEM is a platform-agnostic application that allows users to create models of emerging infectious diseases. With STEM, researchers and public health officials can understand the spread of a disease over time and can put in place preventive measures to help halt the spread of the disease.

In 2009 through 2010, Mexico City found itself as an epicenter of the H1N1 flu pandemic. With about half of Mexico’s entire population living within the city, officials from the Mexico City government feared a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed between 50 and 100 million people.

With 6000 to 7000 confirmed cases, the government approached IBM in the hopes that STEM could help them calculate the spread of the disease. In a no-cost collaborative effort with the Government of the Federal District (GDF), IBM led workshops for the GDF on STEM and PHIAD, an on-demand public health industry system for sharing clinical and public health data.

After officials took preventive steps to close schools and restaurants for 7 to 9 days, IBM worked with the GDF using STEM to measure the impact. The study showed that their policies helped lower transmission by 22 percent.

STEM is in use today in a variety of applications. IBM worked with the Israeli Center for Disease Control to predict and track the spread of seasonal influenza. A zoonotic (animal disease) researcher visiting the United States from Thailand heard about STEM and is exploring using the tool to create global models of mosquito densities.

In Vermont, IBM researchers are using STEM to model disease outbreaks in the state. They have created a model at the town/city level and are using transportation corridors—interstates and highways—as the pathways for disease spread. They are investigating the potential spread of pandemic influenza in a variety of scenarios and examining how various interventions might mitigate the spread of the disease.

From world-leading research to international collaborations, IBM continues to shape the way the world can use technology to control outbreaks, improve healthcare and save lives.