The northeast part of the U.S. has seen a regional health crisis: blue-green algae in Lake Champlain. Pollution dumped into the large body of water has launched explosive growth of toxic algae that has killed pets and sickened people who have entered the waters. The collapse of a bloom leaches the toxin, which has no known antidote. Without GIS technology, tracking the spread of harmful contamination would be near impossible.
Lake Champlain was a tourist destination, until travel journalists began to rate the destination as one to miss. In some areas, it serves as a drinking water source. GIS tools have helped researchers determine that people living within a half mile of an algae-contaminated body of water have more than double the risk of coming down with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That is the sort of information that can help drive political agendas and start the process of change.
That geographic information systems could be effectively used in such a situation shouldn’t be surprising. Historically, one of the earliest uses of the concepts behind GIS was public health. During an 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, England, Dr. John Snow mapped cases, eventually pinpointing the common water source that caused the illness. This was even more remarkable when you remember that this work happened before medical practitioners really understood the microbial nature of disease.
That example shows why GIS training is so important in the health care field. Implementation of the technology is important for more than comparing disease rates to reduced vaccination rates or predicting where to stage medicine during an outbreak. If GIS is important when the mechanisms are understood, they are critical when facing new diseases, toxins, allergens, or other unknowns.
Contrary to what most people might think, new health problems continue to arise. For example, when Legionnaire’s Disease, an atypical type of pneumonia, first was identified in 1976, there was a great deal of fear. No one knew what it was or how it acted or was transmitted. Much more is known about it now, although these days public health officials use GIS to track incidents, which has led to identifying new potential sources, like the produce misting systems in grocery stores.
When SARS first appeared in the early 2000s, GIS was employed to both assemble the data that would ultimately help bring the problem under control and disseminate that information around the world as needed.
It is naïve to think that new diseases are impossible or that doctors will immediately know how to treat them. Surprises are always possible and don’t rely on an Andromeda Strain scenario to come about. As new threats like treatment-resistant superbugs become more prevalent, GIS and the IT professionals that can make it work for health care will be there to help public health officials, researchers, and clinical practitioners combat problems and help humanity.