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Pitt Unlocks Public Health Data to Help Fight Contagious Diseases

December 2, 2013
by John DeGaspari
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Project may serve as a model for making similar sets of public health data more broadly available

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health researchers have collected and digitized all weekly surveillance reports for reportable diseases in the United States going back more than 125 years.

The searchable database, called Project TychoTM, is described in the Nov. 28 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, and is free and publicly available. It was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with the goal of aiding scientists and public health officials in the eradication of deadly and devastating diseases.

The researchers selected eight vaccine-preventable contagious diseases for a more detailed analysis: smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria and pertussis. By overlaying the reported outbreaks with the year of vaccine licensure, the researchers are able to give a clear, visual representation of the effect that vaccines have in controlling communicable diseases.

The researchers obtained all weekly notifiable disease surveillance tables published between 1888 and 2013—approximately 6,500 tables—in various historical reports, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. These tables were available only in paper format or as PDF scans in online repositories that could not be read by computers and had to be hand-entered. With an estimated 200 million keystrokes, the data—including death counts, reporting locations, time periods and diseases—were digitized. A total of 56 diseases were reported for at least some period of time during the 125-year time span, with no single disease reported continuously.   

All these data can be explored and retrieved by everyone on the Project Tycho Web site www.tycho.pitt.edu. The open access release of these data has led to a collaboration with the United States Open Government Initiative and, in the near future, the Project Tycho database will be available on the HealthData.gov Web pages. 


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