While formal reporting, surveillance, and response structures remain essential to protecting public health, a new generation of freely accessible, online, and real-time informatics tools for disease tracking are expanding the ability to raise earlier public awareness of emerging disease threats. The rationale for this study is to test the hypothesis that the HealthMap informatics tools can complement epidemiological data captured by traditional surveillance monitoring systems for meningitis due to Neisseria meningitides (N. meningitides) by highlighting severe transmissible disease activity and outbreaks in the United States.
The underreporting of disease cases in internet-based data streaming makes inadequate any comparison to epidemiological trends illustrated by the more comprehensive ABCs network published by the Centers for Disease Control. However, the expected delays in compiling confirmatory reports by traditional surveillance systems (at the time of writing, ABCs data for 2013 is listed as being provisional) emphasize the helpfulness of real-time internet-based data streaming to quickly fill gaps including the visualization of modes of disease transmission in outbreaks for better resource and action planning. HealthMap can also contribute as an internet-based monitoring system to provide real-time channel for patients to report intervention-related failures.
Annual analyses of N. meningitides disease alerts captured by HealthMap were compared to epidemiological data captured by the Centers for Disease Control's Active Bacterial Core surveillance (ABCs) for N. meningitides. Morbidity and mortality case reports were measured annually from 2010 to 2013 (HealthMap) and 2005 to 2012 (ABCs).
HealthMap N. meningitides monitoring captured 80-90% of alerts as diagnosed N. meningitides, 5-20% of alerts as suspected cases, and 5-10% of alerts as related news articles. HealthMap disease alert activity for emerging disease threats related to N. meningitides were in agreement with patterns identified historically using traditional surveillance systems. HealthMap's strength lies in its ability to provide a cumulative "snapshot" of weak signals that allows for rapid dissemination of knowledge and earlier public awareness of potential outbreak status while formal testing and confirmation for specific serotypes is ongoing by public health authorities.