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Project Tycho digitized 125 years of Public Health and Disease Data


Project Tycho: UPitt researchers have collected and digitized all weekly surveillance reports for reportable diseases in the United States going back more than 125 years.



PITTSBURGH, Nov. 27, 2013 - In an unprecedented windfall for public access to health data, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health researchers have collected and digitized all weekly surveillance reports for reportable diseases in the United States going back more than 125 years.

The easily searchable database, described in the Nov. 28 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, is free and publicly available at Project TychoProject Tycho.

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the project's goal is to aid scientists and public health officials in the eradication of deadly and devastating diseases.

"Using this database, we estimate that more than 100 million cases of serious childhood contagious diseases have been prevented, thanks to the introduction of vaccines," said lead author Willem G. van Panhuis, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. "But we also are able to see a resurgence of some of these diseases in the past several decades as people forget how devastating they can be and start refusing vaccines."

Despite the availability of a pertussis vaccine since the 1920s, the largest pertussis epidemic in the U.S. since 1959 occurred last year. Measles, mumps and rubella outbreaks also have reoccurred since the early 1980s.

"Analyzing historical epidemiological data can reveal patterns that help us understand how infectious diseases spread and what interventions have been most effective," said Irene Eckstrand, Ph.D., of NIH, which partially funded the research through its Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study. "This new work shows the value of using computational methods to study historical data - in this case, to show the impact of vaccination in reducing the burden of infectious diseases over the past century."

The digitized dataset is dubbed Project TychoTM, for 16th century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe, whose meticulous astronomical observations enabled Johannes Kepler to derive the laws of planetary motion.

"Tycho Brahe's data were essential to Kepler's discovery of the laws of planetary motion," said senior author Donald S. Burke, M.D., Pitt Public Health dean and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health. "Similarly, we hope that our Project Tycho disease database will help spur new, life-saving research on patterns of epidemic infectious disease and the effects of vaccines. Open access to disease surveillance records should be standard practice, and we are working to establish this as the norm worldwide."

The researchers selected eight vaccine-preventable contagious diseases for a more detailed analysis: smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diphtheria and pertussis. By overlaying the reported outbreaks with the year of vaccine licensure, the researchers are able to give a clear, visual representation of the effect that vaccines have in controlling communicable diseases.

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