New Software Predicts Spread of Infectious Diseases

Thanks to IBM lab researchers, the open-source community now has access to a processing engine for understanding and planning more efficient responses to pandemics.

Researchers at three IBM labs have donated to the open-source community a package of advanced software that can help predict the transmission of diseases across countries and around the globe, so that public health authorities can make better decisions on how to handle such outbreaks.

The tool, known as STEM (Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler), was made available for free download June 8. It will aid researchers and public health officials in understanding and planning more efficient responses to health crises and ultimately provide new tools for protecting population health.

The STEM software is now available for use through the Eclipse Open Healthcare Framework Project, hosted at the Eclipse Foundation, the nonprofit foundation that guides the 6-year-old Eclipse open-source community.

"This [software] could have been helpful to a great extent in cases like the recent one about the young man [Andrew Speaker] who flew on the airlines with tuberculosis, or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS] scare in Southeast Asia a few years ago," Dr. Alan Louie, a health care software analyst with Health Industry Insights in Framingham, Mass., told eWEEK.

"We would have been able to chart exactly where the diseases were moving, much faster and way ahead of time, in order to put quarantines in place and stop the movement early on."

/zimages/1/28571.gifTo view images and video of STEM in action, click here.

SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia before the global outbreak was contained. According to the World Health Organization, 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the outbreak. Of these, 774 died.

STEM might be able to save lives in cases like SARS and others. The software represents nearly three years of research spanning the globe, with scientists from IBMs Almaden, Haifa and Watson labs contributing to its creation, an IBM spokesperson said.

The software enables the fast creation of epidemiological models—in graph form—for how an infectious disease is likely to spread over time and geography.

STEM, which runs on any operating system, creates a graphical representation of the spread of a disease based on a variety of parameters, such as population, wind patterns, geographic and macro-economic data, road maps, airport locations, travel patterns—even bird migratory routes around the world—the spokesperson said.

"STEM will allow public health officials to model the spread of a disease, much like modeling a storm or hurricane—it allows us to produce a public health weather map for the spread of a particular disease," said Joseph Jasinski, IBM distinguished engineer and program director of Healthcare and Life Sciences.

/zimages/1/28571.gifHow well would IT departments handle the staffing stress caused by a flu pandemic? Click here to find out.

"Until now, it has been difficult to simulate health crisis scenarios on a global scale. STEM gives us the power to do that."

Graphs of all the pertinent information are overlaid and used to represent the spatial aspects of the model, Daniel Ford, the lead IBM programmer on the project, told eWEEK.

Next Page: Tracking the spread of disease.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...