Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have published more than a century's worth of data on scores of infectious diseases they compiled while putting together computer models and simulations for research.
Professors Donald Burke and William van Panhuis repeatedly dipped into written historical records and finally decided to digitize weekly reports for more than 87 million individual cases of 56 contagious diseases reported from 1888 to 2011.
“After doing it 10 or 20 times, we decided it would make more sense to go back and digitize everything -- to just bite the bullet and do the whole corpus,” Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The research, dubbed Project Tycho after Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, was published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Brahe's detailed observations were later used by his assistant Johannes Kepler to derive the laws of planetary motion, and Burke and van Panhuis expect their data to be used by other scientists studying infectious diseases.
“If we can analyze the patterns of epidemics in the past, what caused them to be large one year and small the next year, we'll be in a much stronger position to predict the course of epidemics and the potential impact of interventions,” Burke said.
One study the researchers did before making the data public looked at the effect of vaccines on prevalence of certain diseases and concluded that the incidence of diseases such as measles and rubella fell dramatically and almost immediately after vaccines became available.
“We saw in those displays how there were some very abrupt declines,” van Panhuis said. “I had not expected those very sudden changes.”
They also noted the resurgence of certain diseases, such as pertussis, also known as whooping cough, despite the availability of vaccines, and they hope the data will help determine the cause.