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Fighting pandemics by learning from the past

Published Nov 26, 2014

In the battle against devastating pandemics, such as Ebola, SARS and AIDS, what can we learn from the past? Lars Skog is a geoinformatics researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology who is helping provide the answer.

Ebola Virus Particles: colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (yellow-green). (Photo: NIAID, CC-BY-2.0)

Skog has explored the relationship between geography and disease distribution in major epidemics of the past, including the Black Death, the Russian Flu pandemic of 1889, the Asiatic Influenza of 1957 and the swine flu. And he has found relevant commonalities between these historical pandemics and current ones.

“GIS position is a common denominator for almost any kind of information,” says Skog, who specializes in the spatial and temporal characteristics for pandemics.

“I’ve combined case data with other sources of information such as climate, etiology, demography and transportation. The results of my research have given epidemiologists better information on past pandemics and how they were influenced by climate and other factors.

“This, in turn, will give them new possibilities to mitigate the spread of new ones,” he says.

Skog’s research was widely covered in the media in September when he suggested that mapping fruit bat habitats could help mitigate and predict the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. “If the environmental and climatologic parameters for fruit bat habitats can be defined, there is a chance these habitats could be mapped using existing map data and satellite or airborne imagery,” he says.

“Then risk areas could be monitored and preventive measures could be performed by health authorities. If the natural reservoir is in fact some other animal, positioning the first cases in each outbreak would still give a clue about what to look for.”

David Callahan

Outbreak: The threat of – and battle against – pandemics

Watch the video of the panel discussion at

The current Ebola outbreak is spreading, despite efforts to contain the virus with closed borders and curfews. How should we handle the threat of contagious diseases in our interconnected world? What technologies are available? How can we predict and monitor similar outbreaks? Which political and social methods are most effective for minimizing the spread of diseases?