An Ounce of Information Is Worth a Pound of Cure

Fighting infectious disease outbreaks is complex work. We talk to one researcher about how best to keep people healthy in today's world.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

“We tend to discount the significance of prevention. We tend to reactive creatures by nature. If we do look at the last 20 years, however, we have had more major infectious disease events than in any other time in human history.”

Infectious disease physician and researcher Kamran Khan is an associate professor of public health at the University of Toronto, and he wants to make information spread faster than disease — not an easy feat in this time of fast-paced and high-volume travel.

The last two decades have seen several infectious disease outbreaks that put the whole globe on alert. In 1999, West Nile Virus made its way to North America. Just four years later, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) first appeared in Asia, spreading to over two dozen countries before being contained. In 2014, there was a massive outbreak of Ebola, only two years before the Zika virus triggered birth defects and widespread travel advisories for pregnant women.

“What do we know about how people move?” asks Khan. “How do we better understand the needs of people who are moving across the planet? How do we leverage data, advanced analytics, and artificial intelligence? How do we leverage digital technologies to literally spread knowledge around the world faster than the diseases themselves?”

To tackle these complex problems, we need a team as diverse as the problem itself, says Khan. Infectious diseases can spread through vectors like mosquitoes or animals, from person to person, or through the environment.

“You really need a very diverse set of skills,” says Khan. “You need to have ecologists, and you need to have veterinarians, and data scientists, and designers and software developers, and engineers. All those different perspectives allow us to really tackle a problem that’s very complex.”

Bringing together a team with deep expertise in the science and the technology is the only way to respond to outbreaks as they emerge. That allows people to take the necessary actions and precautions to help contain the outbreak.

“What’s so exciting about the work I’m doing here as a scientist is the ability to reaching millions of lives in ways that we’ve never been able to do before,” adds Khan.

“That gets me out of bed every single morning, excited, passionate about what I’m doing. It doesn’t really feel like work. I feel like I just get to come play and do really exciting things every day, and there’s nothing better than that feeling.”

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Dr. Kamran Khan is an infectious disease physician and scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and a Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto. Motivated by his experiences as a frontline healthcare worker during the 2003 Toronto SARS outbreak, Khan has been studying outbreaks over the past 15 years to lay the scientific foundation for a global early warning system for infectious diseases.

His research has been published in scientific journals including the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, Science, Nature and Cell.

To translate and disseminate scientific knowledge into timely action, Khan founded Blue Dot, a digital health company that uses human and artificial intelligence to help governments protect their citizens, hospitals protect their staff and patients, and businesses protect their employees and customers from dangerous infectious diseases. His research during public health emergencies has led him into numerous advisory roles from the World Health Organization to the White House. Khan recently received a Governor General’s Award for his work transcending clinical medicine, public health, big data, and artificial intelligence. ​

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.