December 10, 2015  Print

A team of Sydney medical researchers is harnessing the combined power of social media and genome sequencing to develop an early warning system against emerging infectious diseases (EIDs).

Infectious disease researcher Professor Tania Sorrell from The Westmead Institute
Professor Tania Sorrell 


The new Centre for Research Excellence in Emerging Infectious Diseases aims to overcome the health system’s often slow and inefficient response to EIDs and limit the spread of potentially deadly new epidemics such as SARS, avian influenza and Ebola.

Based at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, the research program has been awarded $2.5 million over five years from the National Health and Medical Research Council to identify what determines the infection patterns and transmission pathways of outbreaks.

“We want to understand the transmission chains for viral and bacterial pathogens prevalent in Australia and our region and combine that with early warning and tracking systems to guide public health responses in real time,” said chief investigator, Professor Tania Sorrell of the Westmead Institute.

In order to identify illness clusters earlier, existing clinical surveillance in hospital emergency and other departments,  and doctor’s surgeries will be boosted by surveillance of social media.

“Research studies demonstrate that social media may be valuable in disease surveillance. By monitoring social media discussions we can detect unusual spikes in conversation about illness and potentially identify disease outbreaks faster than traditional methods,” said Professor Sorrell.

The research program will use new types of data including high resolution genomic surveillance of infected patients to pinpoint causative agents of an EID and any variants that may make disease more severe or more readily transmissible.

Professor Sorrell said recent improvements in the speed and cost of genome sequencing had made it feasible to use genomic tracking to more rapidly and accurately track the spread of EIDs, but the approach raised significant ethical and legal questions.

“The new technologies can potentially be intrusive to a patient’s privacy so part of our program will involve ethics-based research,” she said.

“We will draw on the perspectives and experience of policy-makers, practitioners and the public to create an ethical policy framework to inform effective public health policy development.”

The genomic analysis will be conducted at the Westmead Institute’s Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology where Professor Sorrell is Centre Director.

She is also Director of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity – a multidisciplinary, “virtual institute” of the University of Sydney that aims to reduce the growing health and socio-economic impacts of infectious diseases, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Professor Sorell said Australia is vulnerable to EIDs due to this region being a major incubator of emerging infections and antimicrobial resistance.

“Our high population mobility, international trade and shifting disease vectors especially mosquito populations, as well as residential and agricultural expansion into wildlife habitats means we must be vigilant for EIDs,” she said.

“This research program is about combining the most advanced thinking and techniques in the field to improve our frontline defences against the next infectious disease outbreak.