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Mapping the spread of ebola, past, present, and future

About 9 months ago, what would become the worst ebola outbreak in recorded history began. The US has just pledged a significant amount of both military personnel and medical supplies to the Ebola-stricken countries. Because ebola can only be spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or body, a graph can be very useful in examining the spreading of the disease.

In an Ebola Contamination Graph, nodes would represent individual people, and edges would represent the physical contact or interaction between people. As the epidemic is on the scale of thousands of people, tracing the spread and movement of the disease is a daunting task. However, the giant web that would not offer much information to a human observer, but it can be easily analyzed by a computer program to determine the path of transmission. The edges represent possible contact with the virus, but it does not mean that every node is infected. It only means that there is a possibility of transmission. Knowing the timeline of human interactions can narrow down who is at risk of infection, as a person who is symptom-free months after interacting with an ebola carrier can be definitively deemed healthy. Working backwards from the time of diagnosed illness, it is conceivable that the computer program can eventually find patient zero as the node whose contact started the epidemic. In the New York Times article, the patient zero was a 2 year old boy, who infected others present at his funeral.

Given other information about the network nodes, such as time of diagnosis with ebola, time of death (if applicable), or length of exposure to infected people the network can be extensively analyzed and possibly even used to predict people who are most at risk to being infected with ebola in the future. This kind of analysis is just one example of the big data that is becoming increasingly common in everyday life. Public health can be positively affected with further development of network mapping tools.

Original article detailing patient zero and the spread of Ebola thereafter:


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September 2014