Tracking measles – is it important to do it publicly?

The reason why I got started down the GIS road, besides slightly veiled family ties to the industry, was because I saw such storytelling potential in map- making.

I’d always enjoyed looking at them – I used to have them taped to my closet planning trips far away, places I wanted to see.

I considered several options, including mapping different variables regarding butterflies and the environment (shout out to an amazing PHD-ready cousin who studies them!) and decided to track the current measles outbreak, first centering in on Southern California before seeing the bigger picture, as cases spread from one incident, which was tied to the Philippines and had other countries infected with it as well.



Science is amazing, right?

But, as I dig deeper and deeper looking for possible exposures, I ran across a peculiar problem.

One area isn’t reporting possible exposure sites at all.

I was lucky enough to get a hold of a public information officer who understood what I was asking for, but couldn’t deliver it to me.

The only reports for the entire county on their website are two high schools who sent unvaccinated students home after someone at the school had been diagnosed.

That still left me wondering – where else had those people been? Were there others still walking around incubating? This county has had eight confirmed cases.

Had someone I know come across them? Had someone who is at a higher risk for getting the disease been exposed, like the babies who came down with it in the days following the original outbreak started at Disneyland?

The question is –  it important to track possible exposure sites for public informational purposes?

Does announcing that someone who was diagnosed with measles somewhere create public panic, affect businesses? Or save lives?

Arizona did not announce every exposure – someone decided whether or not it was important enough to announce that a measles patient had been at a place at a particular time, since it was decided that it was a small enough exposure it could be contained without alarming the public.

Instead of being contained, the news is that up to 1,000 people may have been exposed in connection to that exposure.

I started this project and have expanded the view from a small SoCal base to global, following the announcement that the same measles genotype was traced back to the Philippines, and has been in the US and several European countries in the last 6 months. I’ll keep you in the loop.

The story now has spread farther than what my school project is, mapping this measles outbreak, but deciding to dig deeper into whether or not public announcements detailing possible exposure sites is a positive or negative action for an area to take.

With movies like “Contagion”, the topic of whether or not to say something is discussed, when the disease is a problem but, since they don’t have all the answers, will it become a bigger problem with the addition of public hysteria and panic? Or would the action of keeping a public informed actually have saved lives?

And tracing the exposures on a map, like how they found out who was the original person in “Contagion”, is something that areas can take into account – when they see it creeping their way, perhaps a public announcement reminding people of the symptoms and who is at most risk can save a few from illness.

And, like how Arizona proved, save hundreds at least from possible exposure.


What do you think? Is the risk of public panic worth not announcing places where confirmed patients were before they became sick?