A nowcasting framework for correcting for reporting delays in malaria surveillance

PLoS Comput Biol. 2021 Nov 16;17(11):e1009570. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009570. Online ahead of print.


Time lags in reporting to national surveillance systems represent a major barrier for the control of infectious diseases, preventing timely decision making and resource allocation. This issue is particularly acute for infectious diseases like malaria, which often impact rural and remote communities the hardest. In Guyana, a country located in South America, poor connectivity among remote malaria-endemic regions hampers surveillance efforts, making reporting delays a key challenge for elimination. Here, we analyze 13 years of malaria surveillance data, identifying key correlates of time lags between clinical cases occurring and being added to the central data system. We develop nowcasting methods that use historical patterns of reporting delays to estimate occurred-but-not-reported monthly malaria cases. To assess their performance, we implemented them retrospectively, using only information that would have been available at the time of estimation, and found that they substantially enhanced the estimates of malaria cases. Specifically, we found that the best performing models achieved up to two-fold improvements in accuracy (or error reduction) over known cases in selected regions. Our approach provides a simple, generalizable tool to improve malaria surveillance in endemic countries and is currently being implemented to help guide existing resource allocation and elimination efforts.