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Saturday, February 27th, 2021

New observatory monitors disease outbreaks and large-scale vaccinations in real time

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The hectic nature of public health emergencies may hardly leave officials time to reflect on what lessons are being learned on the ground, and in real time.

The Outbreak Observatory aims to change that.

Comprised of experts in public health and biosecurity, the Observatory’s team captures and publishes stories and social media posts much like a journalist would from the experts on the ground tackling evolving public health challenges in the United States and abroad. The initiative, funded by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project, is a new project of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“There’s little down time to reflect on what happened,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Observatory, about officials who can be in the midst of addressing a response to outbreaks.

The goal of the Observatory — to be an independent entity that gathers information as the public health emergency occurs — is rooted in the reality that knowledge is sometimes forgotten when experts are finally able to complete reports after the outbreak has subsided, Nuzzo said during a Wednesday afternoon webinar also hosted by the International Society for Disease Surveillance.

“We are always struck how much important knowledge rests in their minds,” she said, adding that some of these post-outbreak reports do not always get shared publicly.

And when information does make it to the public, it is often when “things go wrong,” Nuzzo said. The organization tries to counter this with their blog Outbreak Thursday, published on the Observatory’s website.

The argument for the Observatory is that anecdotal information gathered from outbreaks as they occur will not only, as a feedback loop, improve minute-to-minute preparedness, but it could shape public policy and public perception.

Experts from the Observatory witnessed this during a trip to Taiwan last year to document a mass vaccination campaign of school children against seasonal influenza, also covered extensively by Taiwanese media.

“They were able to vaccinate thousands of children in four hours,” said Matthew Shearer, Observatory project manager, about that country’s equivalent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Were it not for the writings of Shearer and his colleagues, U.S. public health officials might have learned of Taiwanese efforts via a journal article published months after the vaccination campaign.

As for the recent Zika virus outbreak in the United States, greater on-the-ground reporting of the response, even during periods where case reports were fewer, could have swayed lawmakers to fund outbreak efforts more consistently, Nuzzo said.

Anecdotal data does not replace large-scale data analysis, although Nuzzo said enough of these reports over time could make their way into bigger epidemiological studies.

Reports by the Outbreak Observatory can be found at https://www.outbreakobservatory.org.