Public Health’s Vaccine Research Goes Viral

Issue Date: 
March 16, 2015

The Pitt Graduate School of Public Health’s research on epidemic outbreaks has “gone viral.”

Very viral. As in Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates tweeting some of the school’s research to 20 million of his closest friends on Feb. 20. Those followers retweeted it thousands of times. And a number of high-profile journalists got into the act, too.

The tweet mania began in January following a multistate measles outbreak linked to Disneyland in California. Several social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and others—have played host to the impassioned dispute between many parents and the medical establishment, on one side, and the anti-vaccine movement on the other.

Enter two tools created by the Graduate School of Public Health. One is an interactive graphic showing the dramatic drop in U.S. infection rates once vaccines were introduced. The other, known as the FRED Measles Epidemic Simulator, is a visualization tool to show how quickly measles will spread when a given percentage of the population is not immunized.

The tweet by Gates, cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was about the interactive graphic showing the impact of vaccines on U.S. infection rates. It was his third most-popular tweet of the nearly 200 tweets he sent during a six-month period.

Carl Zimmer, a science writer and New York Times  columnist, tweeted about FRED to his 250,000 followers. Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett also tweeted about FRED. And the list goes on …

The interactive graphic was a collaboration between Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health and The Wall Street Journal, based on Pitt’s Project Tycho database, which seeks to make public health data more accessible and useable. 

FRED (Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics) is a collaboration between the Graduate School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. 

Donald S. Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Health, credited the Pitt Public Health Dynamics Laboratory team for their work in creating the tweeted tools. The team included Wilbert Van Panhuis, an assistant professor in epidemiology; John Grefenstette, professor of health policy and management and founding director of the Public Health Dynamics Lab.