As the Zika virus outbreak continues to raise concern world-wide, Google has announced that its engineers are working with UNICEF “to find better ways to visualize the threat so that public health officials and NGOs can support communities at risk.”
A global health epidemic that has spread to at least 30 countries, Zika has been linked to thousands of confirmed and suspected cases of microcephaly, a birth defect condition that causes babies to have unusually small heads. A link also has been established with neurologic conditions in infected adults, including Guillain-Barré syndrome. There is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for the disease.
A volunteer team of Google engineers, designers and data scientists is helping UNICEF build a platform to process data from different sources — such as weather and travel patterns — in order to visualize potential Zika outbreaks. The ultimate goal of the open-source platform is to identify the risk of transmission for different regions and to help UNICEF, governments and non-governmental organizations decide how and where to focus time and resources
“As a company whose mission is helping people find information, with a lot of experience in analyzing large sets of data, we’re in a good position to help — at scale and at speed. So, today we have Google engineers working with UNICEF to analyze data to determine how to map and anticipate the virus. We’ve also made some updates to our products to make Zika information more accessible, and we’re providing UNICEF with a $1 million grant to help their efforts on the ground,” the company said in a statement.
The spread of Zika has been harder to identify, map and contain than many other global pandemics. It is believed that four out of five people with the virus don’t show any symptoms, and the primary transmitter for the disease, the Aedes mosquito species, is both widespread and challenging to eliminate. This means that fighting Zika requires both raising awareness on how people can protect themselves, and supporting organizations who can help to drive development of rapid diagnostics and vaccines.
“Our $1 million grant will be used by UNICEF to raise widespread awareness, reduce mosquito populations, support the development of diagnostics and vaccines, and work with communities and governments to prevent Zika transmission,” Google said.
The organization expects to reach 200 million affected or vulnerable people in Brazil and throughout Latin America with these efforts. In addition, Google has launched a matching campaign for Google employees, aimed at providing an additional $500,000 to UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to support their work on the ground.
While the new open-source platform is being prototyped specifically for the Zika response, Google has stated that it also will be applicable for use in future emergencies.
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