I just heard about a new “big data” project called Project Tycho. They chose the name Tycho in honor of Tycho Brahe who made tons of detailed observations of the stars and planets. After his death, his data was used by Kepler to formulate the laws of planetary motion. This project wants to connect the vast amounts of public health data to scientists and policy researchers to improve their understanding of contagious diseases and their spread. Their undertaking is incredible; they digitized weekly Nationally Notifiable Disease Surveillance System reports from 1888-2013. Now that all of the data is digitized they are working their way through standardizing it and making it amenable to analysis. This entire dataset is available for search online.
Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published their description of the project along with data from the first analysis done on this new resource. They looked at 8 different vaccine preventable diseases (smallpox, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, hepatitis A, diptheria, pertussis) and looked at the rate of incidence before the introduction of a the vaccine. They assumed that there were no other major reasons that the rate of infection of the diseases would change other than the vaccination increase. They estimated that 103.1 million cases of these 8 diseases had been prevented since 1924. Now when you think back that sometimes these diseases can be fatal, these vaccination programs have made a huge difference in child health, and population health in general.
This data also exposes increased rates of 4 of these diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, and pertussis) in recent years. This could be attributed to pockets where vaccination rates have dropped due to personal or religious reasons. It’s not really possible to know definitively with this particular data. While the rates of these diseases seem incredibly low and the perceived risk of infection seems low, the current rates of infection are low due to years and years of vaccination. The risk of the unvaccinated is actually much higher than it would appear.
This large data project will be invaluable resource in evaluating vaccine program effectiveness and it will help to guide and record future vaccination programs.