There's an App for That

When it comes to fighting the spread of infectious diseases around the world, Dr. Kamran Khan won’t just use every tool in the book—he’ll invent a new one if he has to.

That’s why the world now has BlueDot, a company that creates data-driven technologies to track diseases’ global travels and protect the public from them. And it’s why Dr. Khan, a physician and research scientist at St. Michael’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, was recently given U of T’s President’s Impact Award for his relentless drive to prevent outbreaks around the world.

Dr. Khan’s career is an experience in fateful timing. When he was training in New York City in infectious diseases and public health, the West Nile virus made its North American debut in 1999, and the anthrax scare came two years later.

In 2003, Dr. Khan returned home to start his career at St. Michael’s. “I was looking forward to not being in a public health emergency,” he says. “But right after I got to Toronto, so did the SARS virus.” The outbreak caused 43 deaths, and several hundred more people were infected, including some of his colleagues. “It had a big impact on the psychology of the health-care workforce. And it was a realization that while we’re moving around the planet, we’re moving diseases around with us. Had that virus been a bit more contagious, the outcome could have been catastrophic. So my thinking was, this type of event is going to happen again—this time let’s get in front of it.”

Dr. Khan spent the next five years researching travel and disease patterns, “trying to understand how our global transportation network has become the conduit for the spread of diseases.”

He approached the airline industry and started gathering data on billions of travellers’ itineraries. “For the first time we could see how the world was moving across the planet,” Dr. Khan says. “If we could see that in relation to outbreaks, could we anticipate them? There really wasn’t a field looking at health from a planetary perspective back then. So I was trying to push the boundaries, working with massive data sets that required a different infrastructure to manipulate and visualize.”

It was clear that new tools like high-performance computing and advanced analytics would be needed to provide insights quickly enough to deal with rapidly moving outbreaks. So a driven and determined Dr. Khan enlisted funding from St. Michael’s and others to found BlueDot.

“We created an AI-powered engine that reads information in 100 different languages on over 100 diseases from tens of thousands of websites every hour, looking for news about infectious diseases,” he says. “And we’re capturing over 4 billion passenger itineraries, anonymized, with connections and final destinations. There’s no other system that’s ever been built like that.

“And the last piece is understanding how the diseases might spread and what the consequences might be. Some spread through mosquitos, some through animals, some through contaminated water, some from person to person. We have to understand the whole life cycle. This is where we’ve brought in data on demographics, animal populations, insects, local environmental conditions. And we’re developing a first-of-its-kind global early warning system that can connect all the dots.”

Using that system, Dr. Khan and his team predicted the 2016 Zika outbreak in Florida six months before it happened. “We looked at what happened with the virus in Brazil, how many people were travelling to Florida, where the mosquito that transmits the virus is found, and the environmental conditions required for an outbreak,” he explains. “Instead of SARS, which we found out about when it was in our hospitals, we were six months in front of Zika, anticipating how it would spread.”

BlueDot now produces tools for governments and health-care workers in 12 countries to monitor threats to public health, as well as an app called the George Health Companion that provides personalized health information for travellers. In recognition of his groundbreaking work, Dr. Khan was invited to speak to the Obama administration’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of the Physician to the President.

Still, Dr. Khan is tireless, always looking ahead and ready to continue the fight. “We have aspirations to do something more impactful,” he says. “George was a first step, a way to empower the public with insights about what health risks they might face wherever they go. It’s taking the science and saying the output isn’t a publication, it’s a living piece of technology that people can use.”

What you can do to protect yourself

1. Stay home if you are sick. Too often, people tough it out and risk spreading infections to others.

2. Visit a travel medicine clinic or see your doctor before you travel abroad. This way you can take the appropriate precautions to stay healthy while travelling and avoid bringing diseases back home.

3. Consider using digital health apps like George Health Companion to help you avoid infectious diseases around the world.

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