Using GIS to track Zika and microcephaly

glafiramarcon_0043For almost a year, the United States watched from afar as the number of Zika cases in Central and South America grew, with increasing numbers of infants born with the debilitating brain malformation known as microcephaly.

As of August 31st, 2016, just over 2,700 cases of Zika had been reported in the U.S. — 35 of which were acquired locally through mosquitoes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Florida has been particularly hard hit due to climate, proximity and travel to the Caribbean, and the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

To help design a unified response to the Zika virus, UnitedHealth Group (UHG) has been using HealthState to geospatially visualize the occurrence and spread of Zika in Brazil and the U.S., using public and proprietary data.

HealthState is a geographic information system (GIS) used for curating and visualizing data on maps and performing geographic analysis to inform decision-making. Using the HealthState tool has allowed UHG to:

  •  Map incidental and cumulative Zika* and microcephaly cases in the U.S. and Brazil by zip code (UHG data) and state (public data)
  •  Implement a time-lapse web application that shows weekly and monthly changes
  •  Illustrate data to show patterns in movement and growth of the virus
  •  Predict which areas will be affected next by parsing out travel-related and locally acquired cases and overlaying regional climate and vector data
  •  Compare virus path to pregnant populations to inform prevention efforts
  •  Create a secure, digital portal that houses these maps for easy access and demonstration

Armed with this geospatial information, UHG has been able to coordinate efforts to provide mosquito repellent, educational materials and other resources to members.

Only one out of every five Zika cases is symptomatic. Generally, the threat of serious illness from the Zika virus is low, except for the risk to a pregnant woman’s unborn baby. Microcephaly is one of many effects that the Zika virus may have on babies. Since there is no treatment for adults or infants infected with the Zika virus, UHG is using HealthState to help focus efforts on prevention of infections. As with most conditions, chronic or infectious, there are benefits to tracking transmission and intervening. The lifelong cost of caring for a child with microcephaly — including medical cost and caretaker time away from work — is estimated at $10 million (CDC).

UHG prioritizes the health of wellbeing of members and employees. They’re using HealthState to identify areas with threats of Zika to individuals, communities and health care systems enabling UHG to take action.

*Please note that since there will not be an ICD 10 code for Zika until October, UHG has been using the code for “other specified mosquito-borne viral fevers” (A92.8) as a proxy.

About the Author:

Glafira Marcon is passionate about solving health problems impacting underserved populations. She began her career as a navigator at a community health center in Saint Paul. She now works in Optum Innovation, Research and Development, where she’s developing a tool called the Community Resource Finder (CRF) and is a HealthState GIS consultant. Her projects focus on community and global health, social determinants of health, care coordination, gaps in care, population health management and sales enablement. She has experience working with international and multicultural populations, including those in Brazil and the U.K., as well as the U.S. Hispanic population.

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