Real-life disease trackers are on the job

    The movie “Contagion” uses award-winning actors to portray the disease trackers and vaccine planners who help health officials manage a new virus outbreak.

    Some Pennsylvania scientists do that job for real.

    “The average person touches their face, three to five times every waking minute, in between we are touching, door knobs, water fountains and each other,” according to the film.

    In the movie a lottery–and birth dates–determine who will get the vaccine to ward off a fictional, fast-moving and deadly virus. At the University of Pittsburgh, experts with the Vaccine Modeling Initiative use a supercomputer to run similar public health scenarios.

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    In one study, Bruce Lee’s team at the school’s Public Health Computational and Operations Research Group ran a simulation for the Washington, D.C., region to figure out how to distribute the flu vaccine when it’s in short supply.

    It may be human nature to hoard vaccine for your family–and your community–but Lee says that instinct may not be the best for health.

    “We actually found that it’s to the benefit, not just to low-income populations, but to everyone, for low-income populations to get the vaccine first,” Lee said. “Because low-income areas tend to be very dense, with a lot of people packed together, and also many people travel from low-income areas to high income areas to actually work.”

    In real life, Lee and other university colleagues were embedded with federal health officials as they tried to slow the spread of the H1N1 virus last year.

    “What would happen if we closed the schools? What would happen if persons who had mild symptoms were promptly treated, even without having a specific diagnosis? There were a lot of ‘what if’ questions that were asked of us on a daily basis” said Don Burke, dean of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

    Other studies have looked at the reverberations of introducing a new vaccine in a developing country. Lee says that work could help local health officials pinpoint weaknesses in their distribution systems, such as too few refrigerators, trucks or trained health workers.

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