Metro Morning

App helps travellers protect themselves against 'inevitable' infectious disease outbreak

Another major infectious disease outbreak “is inevitable,” says a Toronto doctor, but his company’s global health monitoring efforts, including a travel app, are aimed at empowering both the medical community and the public to be “as prepared as possible.”

Toronto company BlueDot tracks how germs spread amid global travel

Dr. Kamran Khan explains the work of BlueDot monitoring how infectious diseases spread around the world. The company's app, George, helps travellers keep themselves safe. (CBC)

Another major infectious disease outbreak "is inevitable," says a Toronto doctor, but his company's global health monitoring efforts, including a travel app, are aimed at empowering both the medical community and the public to be "as prepared as possible."

Dr. Kamran Khan is an infectious disease specialist at St. Michael's Hospital and the founder of BlueDot, a company of some 50 experts who use various types of data to study how infectious diseases spread around the world.

While they have been working with public health officials for the last few years, the team's travel app — George Health Companion — was showcased at this week's inaugural EDIT Expo for designs and projects that are improving living conditions around the world.

The group's exhibit at EDIT includes a travel map it calls "Hello Neighbour," aimed at showing viewers how easily diseases can spread due to global travel.

"The purpose is to get people to think about the fact that we live in this very inter-connected world and that germs can quickly spread from one part of the world to another, and by protecting ourselves against some of these types of diseases we are in fact protecting the world around us," Khan told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday.

According to Khan, more than six trillion kilometres were travelled via commercial flights last year alone, which is equal to 20,000 round trips to the sun. His team uses data from air travel, as well as satellite weather data and information about disease outbreaks around the world, to study how germs can spread.

Khan, a Toronto native who studied in New York and Boston, became aware of the issue when he returned to work in Toronto in 2003, just as the SARS outbreak was hitting.

"That was kind of that 'a-ha' moment," Khan said. "Diseases can spread incredibly quickly and you can have these tiny little viruses really cripple a city, which is what we saw here in Toronto."

At that time, the same types of data and the investment in analytics just didn't exist, he said.

"So what we're really trying to do is move forward and say, 'How can we be better prepared for the next outbreak that unfortunately is inevitably going to happen at some point?'"

'It's a question of when'

George Health Companion, which is available at the App store and Google Play, is designed to tell travellers about diseases in the areas they are headed to, what that information might mean for them and how they can best protect themselves.

BlueDot's traveller app George Health Companion is available at the App Store and Google Play. (CBC)

But BlueDot also wants frontline health workers across the globe to be able to report in real time if they are seeing something that could lead to a major outbreak, such as a disease that appears unfamiliar.

"They can be the difference between one case of a disease and an outbreak of hundreds or thousands of people," Khan said. "If they can recognize that disease, make sure they have that person isolated and managed properly, they can stop an outbreak in its tracks."

Now, after working with public health officials, BlueDot wants people to understand that due to global travel, an outbreak as far away as Japan may have a bigger impact in Toronto than one elsewhere in Canada.

"It's really just socializing this concept that each one of us plays a role in preventing the next outbreak by protecting ourselves," Khan said.

His team, which includes physicians, veterinarians, ecologists and data scientists in addition to software developers and designers, is looking at the issue from their "individual perspectives, so that we can be as prepared as possible for these future threats."

Given the outbreaks in recent years of SARS, MERS, Ebola and Zika, Khan said, another major outbreak "is inevitable."

"It's a sobering thought, but the reality is that this is not a question of if, it's a question of when," Khan said.

"We want to use information to empower people and to empower smart decisions under really time-sensitive conditions."

With files from Metro Morning