In order to be able to map the spread of infectious diseases and viruses in detail, we need data – lots of data. Infectieradar, a new project by UHasselt and UAntwerp, calls on citizens to get involved: everyone can do their bit by reporting any symptoms once a week. The project is part of a large-scale European initiative.
The outbreak of the coronavirus brought home to all of us that infectious diseases can spread rapidly and on a massive scale, especially if many infected people only have mild symptoms. This makes it all the more important to monitor the spread of infectious diseases and viruses very closely. Only in this way can we take action at the right time.
As part of the Simulation Models of Infectious Diseases (SIMID) project, the universities of Antwerp and Hasselt have been working on modelling the spread of infectious diseases since 2006. With infectieradar.be, the scientists are taking things to the next level: they want to convince Belgian citizens to report any symptoms – whether it's a fever, a headache or a sore throat – on this website once a week. Even those who have no symptoms are asked to report that fact. With this information, trends can be picked up even before they're reported by primary care providers.
'Just look at the coronavirus', says Prof. Niel Hens (UHasselt/UAntwerp). ‘With the data coming from general practitioners, we can already get a pretty good idea of the spread of the virus in our country. But if we could also get relevant information from Belgians themselves, we could track the virus even more closely.'
Quicker to respond
With people entering any symptoms they or their children experience on the new website, trends towards more or fewer infections can be picked up sooner, and scientists and policymakers can react more quickly.
The new project is receiving funding from the EU Horizon 2020 programme. 'Infectieradar.be is part of the European Influenzanet consortium', explains Dr Lisa Hermans (UHasselt). 'Because of course, infectious diseases don't care about national borders. This has become abundantly clear over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Eleven European countries are already calling on citizens to provide information on symptoms. Influenzanet helps standardise this data collection, so that different countries can be compared easily.'
We all reap the benefits
Anyone who lives in Belgium and has access to the internet can participate. Epidemiologist Prof. Pierre Van Damme (UAntwerp) is also involved in the project. 'Scientists need data. Via infectieradar.be, everyone can do their bit, and ultimately the entire population will benefit. Although we're starting this project in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, this platform will also be invaluable post-COVID, to map the spread of other viruses and infectious diseases.'
His colleague, Prof. Philippe Beutels, emphasises that all data entered by participants will be processed completely anonymously. 'The results will also be made available to the general public on the website. The coming months will be an interesting test case, allowing us to compare participants’ input to the vaccination status of the population.'