University of Utah School of Medicine,Salt Lake City, Utah,USA.
During the recent Ebola crisis in West Africa, individual person-level details of disease onset, transmissions, and outcomes such as survival or death were reported in online news media. We set out to document disease transmission chains for Ebola, with the goal of generating a timely account that could be used for surveillance, mathematical modeling, and public health decision-making. By accessing public web pages only, such as locally produced newspapers and blogs, we created a transmission chain involving two Ebola clusters in West Africa that compared favorably with other published transmission chains, and derived parameters for a mathematical model of Ebola disease transmission that were not statistically different from those derived from published sources. We present a protocol for responsibly gleaning epidemiological facts, transmission model parameters, and useful details from affected communities using mostly indigenously produced sources. After comparing our transmission parameters to published parameters, we discuss additional benefits of our method, such as gaining practical information about the affected community, its infrastructure, politics, and culture. We also briefly compare our method to similar efforts that used mostly non-indigenous online sources to generate epidemiological information.