Predicting dengue incidence leveraging internet-based data sources. A case study in 20 cities in Brazil

PLoS Negl Trop Dis. 2022 Jan 24;16(1):e0010071. doi: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0010071. eCollection 2022 Jan.


The dengue virus affects millions of people every year worldwide, causing large epidemic outbreaks that disrupt people's lives and severely strain healthcare systems. In the absence of a reliable vaccine against dengue or an effective treatment to manage the illness in humans, most efforts to combat dengue infections have focused on preventing its vectors, mainly the Aedes aegypti mosquito, from flourishing across the world. These mosquito-control strategies need reliable disease activity surveillance systems to be deployed. Despite significant efforts to estimate dengue incidence using a variety of data sources and methods, little work has been done to understand the relative contribution of the different data sources to improved prediction. Additionally, scholarship on the topic had initially focused on prediction systems at the national- and state-levels, and much remains to be done at the finer spatial resolutions at which health policy interventions often occur. We develop a methodological framework to assess and compare dengue incidence estimates at the city level, and evaluate the performance of a collection of models on 20 different cities in Brazil. The data sources we use towards this end are weekly incidence counts from prior years (seasonal autoregressive terms), weekly-aggregated weather variables, and real-time internet search data. We find that both random forest-based models and LASSO regression-based models effectively leverage these multiple data sources to produce accurate predictions, and that while the performance between them is comparable on average, the former method produces fewer extreme outliers, and can thus be considered more robust. For real-time predictions that assume long delays (6-8 weeks) in the availability of epidemiological data, we find that real-time internet search data are the strongest predictors of dengue incidence, whereas for predictions that assume short delays (1-3 weeks), in which the error rate is halved (as measured by relative RMSE), short-term and seasonal autocorrelation are the dominant predictors. Despite the difficulties inherent to city-level prediction, our framework achieves meaningful and actionable estimates across cities with different demographic, geographic and epidemic characteristics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Brazil / epidemiology
  • Cities / epidemiology
  • Dengue / epidemiology*
  • Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Information Storage and Retrieval
  • Internet*
  • Models, Statistical
  • Mosquito Vectors
  • Weather*