The world's media succombs to the word of a public relations professional when it comes to sharing what reality looks like in the world of operational biosurveillance. Our team is often forwarded copies of what passes for situational awareness reports (SitReps) which are distributed to our universities who have exchange students from West Africa, our state and local fusion centers, and most importantly, our first responders.
These SitReps are universally one variation or another of the same Ebola epidemic curve and a entire list of copy and pasted media articles. There may be a Google map with a few dots on it representing where cases have been reported. Some capabilities are regurgitating media report transcripts on a public website.
The reaction of those who read these types of reports is to be anxious about the non-contextualized information. Response discussions are often chaotic, giving in to media hype and, in the case of Ebola, claims of "pandemic potential".
And quietly, there sits a team of analysts who process epidemic intelligence for Ebola. Below is the current indication and warning signature pattern for Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, respectively. Signatures are routinely tracked in near-real time. The last figure provides the signature pattern for Kikwit, DRC in 1995. Our team maintains indication and warning signature libraries for the world; in the case of Ebola we have every epidemic documented back to the mid 1990s. Note that we have grossly exceeded the disruption observed in Kikwit, which was previouslly the most disruptive Ebola epidemic in Africa since 1994.
Epi curve source: ECDC. Indication and warning signature source: Ascel Bio. X axis is Day 1 to near-present. Shifts in indication and warning patterns (i.e. the red areas) often indicate shifts in the evolution of the event itself. Resurgence of cases in Guinea and a subsequent shift in the slope of the epidemic curve is noted on the far right. Indication and warning tracking is near-real time and precedes epidemiological data by weeks to months, depending on the context.
Epi curve source: ECDC. Indication and warning signature source: Ascel Bio. Sierra Leone indication and warning pattern. X axis is Day 1 to near-present.
Epi curve source: ECDC. Indication and warning signature source: Ascel Bio. Liberia indication and warning pattern. X axis is Day 1 to near-present.
The Kikwit, DRC (1995) indication and warning signature pattern. Note resolution of the disaster was achieved within 60 from the start of international recognition of the epidemic. Source: Ascel Bio.
Real operations is not just case counting when there is utter ambiguity of the data. Particularly during a crisis or disaster. It involves comprehensive monitoring of the entirety of a country's health status, where one monitors the hazard itself in context with the human behavior it provokes. Non-contextualized media reports are useful only to sensitize people... and arguably, to unnecessarily stoke anxiety.
What is required is a measured view of the situation through the lens of experienced analysis by people who do this for a living.
For example, media has recently reported the fatalities of a team of aid workers in Guinea who were attacked by a mob. Sadly, had they seen what we were seeing in the indication and warning tracking logs, they might have hesitated to go to that village without a security escort. We were observing a noticeable increase in several key indicators related to escalating tension between the public and officials.