New tool a dynamo in tracking infectious diseases

The aedes aegypti mosquito is one of the species known to transmit the dengue virus. © Shutterstock

Fever, tiredness, headaches, muscle pain and nausea. No, we’re not describing the feelings you had when it was time to go back to work after the summer holidays. These are some of the symptoms of the Dengue virus.

Dengue is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. Currently only the Aedes aegypti is found in mainland Australia, mostly around Northern Queensland, while the Aedes albopictus, which prefers cooler climates, can be found as close as the Torres Strait — places where dengue outbreaks occur annually.

But between outbreaks, Australia is free of dengue fever. The local Aedes aegypti mozzies don’t usually carry the virus but if people are infected overseas and return home to be bitten, the mozzies can spread the virus.

Keeping Australia safe from disease

Although Australia is relatively disease-free compared to other regions of the world, diseases are brought in through infected people who can be Australians returning home from holiday, tourists travelling to Australia, or fly-in fly-out workers travelling abroad. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to be monitoring and predicting how viruses spread so that we can be better prepared.

So why do dengue outbreaks occur annually in the sunshine state? There could be a range of different reasons: more people travelling, wet weather that mozzies love to breed in or slow response times for treatment and quarantine.

With all of these different factors at play, we need to see the whole picture to be able to make predictions.

We’ve developed a new tool to do just that. The DiNeMo tool helps us understand how infectious diseases found overseas, like dengue, might spread in Australia.

This figure shows the spread of dengue cases by location across the three years with the largest outbreaks.

The tool can be used to identify the source of dengue, or other infectious diseases, and identify when and where outbreaks may occur. This figure shows the spread of dengue cases by location across the three years with the largest outbreaks.

Talk data to me

DiNeMo draws on multiple data sources including reported dengue cases, tourist surveys, geo-tagged social media posts, and airline travel to determine the risk of diseases coming into the country, as well as where and when outbreaks may happen.

Understanding how infections spread once they reach Australia means we can predict when and where an outbreak is likely to occur – this means hospitals and biosecurity agencies can be as prepared as possible.

The tool also combines the different data sets in a smart way to understand the trends that underpin the spread of diseases. Using data networking, the tool could also help to make predictions based on these trends as to when we might see a spike in cases of infection.

 

Preventing future outbreaks

When it comes to biosecurity, time is always the enemy, so being able to direct resources to the right place, at the right time can help diagnose and treat infected people as quickly as possible.

Traditional methods of tracking infection routes often depend on time-consuming site investigations or interviews relating to travel routes of infected patients.

This approach allows us to look into the past and identify the sources of infection, and also predict the potential future spread of disease.

The tool is part of a broader Disease Networks and Mobility (DiNeMo) project aimed at developing a real-time alert and surveillance system for human infectious diseases.

The DiNeMo project combines our expertise in health and biosecurity with the digital know-how of our digital innovation arm, Data61 to help solve some of our greatest health challenges.