South Africa needs a co-ordinated, realtime data infrastructure if it is to deal appropriately with swine flu.
This is the word from Paul van Aswegen, GM of Informatica South Africa, who adds: "World health authorities have said Africa stands at particular risk from swine flu. "The world record prevalence of HIV/Aids, TB and malaria in Africa shows what could happen if and when the swine flu virus reaches our continent."
More than 1 200 cases of suspected swine flu have been reported in Mexico and the US, and with winter setting in, the World Health Organisation has warned of the potential for typical winter flu to combine with swine flu, creating a new strain that is more contagious or dangerous than either of the two original viruses.
"Before authorities can deal with any outbreak of swine flu, they need to know as much as possible about it," says van Aswegen. "They need to know where it entered the country and when, how it is spreading and how quickly, and they need to know about it soon enough for the authorities to act. This means they need data as close as possible to realtime."
In 2004, during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, Hong Kong medical authorities used Informatica technology to coordinate data from 30 clinical systems across 43 hospitals and 120 outpatient centres in five days. They aimed to coordinate medical, audit and performance reporting across the organisation, but they were subsequently able to collect and analyse frontline clinical care data with direct benefits in improved care, alerts to new diseases and public health research. The consequence: SARS was brought under control before it could become a pandemic.
"Health authorities face a particular challenge as they have a variety of IT systems," adds van Aswegen. "They include mainframes, proprietary midrange systems, some more than two decades old, giant ERP systems and today's Web-based applications. The only way to gain a comprehensive view of a looming pandemic is to be able to integrate and synchronise data across all these disparate platforms."
The challenge is significant, adds van Aswegen. "Even as advanced a country as Australia continues to share health information by e-mail and fax, while the Informatica system in Hong Kong replaced a 100% fax-based system.
"Diseases used to spread in months, but now given the mobility of travellers, and the population density in many countries, they spread in weeks and days. This intensifies the need for rapid information sharing and coordination, as it will allow authorities to develop therapies timeously."
Some commentators have stated that the global reaction to a potential swine flu pandemic is excessive, but van Aswegen points out that "since 1889 four flu pandemics have killed up to 103-million people, so authorities have reason to fear a new strain".