GIS Helps Public Health Officials Eliminate Polio

To eliminate a disease is a heady challenge and severely difficult. Even if you have a vaccine for something like smallpox or polio, ridding the world of every last case is ridiculously hard. That means no matter where it pops up, healthcare professionals must learn about it and track it down before the normal course of transmission takes place.

GIS plays an important role given that many of the remote areas are unmapped.

But now public health and other healthcare officials, executives, and experts have a new tool: GIS training. GIS stands for geographic and geospatial information systems. Combining location with other types of data provides new analytic abilities. An example is how the World Health Organization expects GIS to be an important tool in eradicating polio by 2018.

The goal is part of a program called the Polio Global Eradication Initiative. This means getting the vaccine to all children younger than five who live in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the only countries still seeing outbreaks of the crippling disease. Finishing off the virus in these areas can mean upwards of three vaccines for a given child.

GIS plays an important role given that many of the remote areas are unmapped. In the past, public health officials would fly a region, take pictures, and then try to orientate themselves. Not only is that expensive, but if an area like Afghanistan is undergoing unrest, the process can be dangerous as well. It can also be impractical in areas with high population density.

Instead, WHO employs satellite imagery and software from Esri, a leading GIS vendor, to map populated areas with unvaccinated children. That would be reason enough, but there are additional concerns. While there are any pockets of infection, there is always the possibility that the disease could spread back to areas where polio is already completely under control.

One example of how technology has been put into use is in northern Nigeria. Healthcare workers carry satellite telephone systems that relay information back to officials who can monitor progress in real-time. Whenever workers stay at a location for longer than a predetermined time, a yellow dot appears on satellite maps.

“That enables us to compute with a high degree of precision the number of houses the vaccinators have covered each day during a campaign,” Dr. Mahmud Zubairu told Agence France-Presse. By tracking, the larger campaign can better supervise the workers and manage the entire project. “Since we started tracking we have seen a systematic increase in polio immunization coverage and we are right on track to eradicating polio in Nigeria,” he said.

Although polio is unusual in having certain qualities that make it a rare candidate for eradication, GIS will find many other healthcare applications in the years to come.