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Open Access Research article

Toward unsupervised outbreak detection through visual perception of new patterns

Pierre P Lévy123* and Alain-Jacques Valleron234

Author Affiliations

1 Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, Hôpital Tenon, Département de Santé Publique, F-75020, Paris, France

2 INSERM, U707, Paris, France

3 Université Paris 6-Pierre et Marie Curie, UMR-S 707, F-75012, Paris, France

4 Assistance Publique -Hôpitaux de Paris, Hôpital Saint-Antoine, Unité de Santé Publique, Paris, F-75012, France

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BMC Public Health 2009, 9:179  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-9-179

Published: 10 June 2009



Statistical algorithms are routinely used to detect outbreaks of well-defined syndromes, such as influenza-like illness. These methods cannot be applied to the detection of emerging diseases for which no preexisting information is available.

This paper presents a method aimed at facilitating the detection of outbreaks, when there is no a priori knowledge of the clinical presentation of cases.


The method uses a visual representation of the symptoms and diseases coded during a patient consultation according to the International Classification of Primary Care 2nd version (ICPC-2). The surveillance data are transformed into color-coded cells, ranging from white to red, reflecting the increasing frequency of observed signs. They are placed in a graphic reference frame mimicking body anatomy. Simple visual observation of color-change patterns over time, concerning a single code or a combination of codes, enables detection in the setting of interest.


The method is demonstrated through retrospective analyses of two data sets: description of the patients referred to the hospital by their general practitioners (GPs) participating in the French Sentinel Network and description of patients directly consulting at a hospital emergency department (HED).

Informative image color-change alert patterns emerged in both cases: the health consequences of the August 2003 heat wave were visualized with GPs' data (but passed unnoticed with conventional surveillance systems), and the flu epidemics, which are routinely detected by standard statistical techniques, were recognized visually with HED data.


Using human visual pattern-recognition capacities to detect the onset of unexpected health events implies a convenient image representation of epidemiological surveillance and well-trained "epidemiology watchers". Once these two conditions are met, one could imagine that the epidemiology watchers could signal epidemiological alerts, based on "image walls" presenting the local, regional and/or national surveillance patterns, with specialized field epidemiologists assigned to validate the signals detected.