University of Guelph Creates Downloadable Tool to Improve Disease Response

The tool, available for free, could aid in prioritizing responses to zoonotic diseases and outbreaks.

The Zoonotic Disease Prioritization Tool will help researchers prioritize responses to zoonotic disease and outbreaks.

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The University of Guelph recently reported that its researchers have created a decision-making tool that could aid in prioritizing responses to zoonotic diseases and outbreaks.

“From rabies to Ebola, how do you decide which zoonotic diseases to prioritize?” said Jan Sargeant, DVM, Ph.D., director of Guelph’s Center for Public Health and Zoonoses, and a professor in the Department of Population Medicine at U of G’s Ontario Veterinary College. “There are not enough resources to prevent and control all of them.”

Currently, different public health organizations use different prioritization criteria.

“There was definitely a research gap in terms of understanding how individuals and organizations prioritize zoonotic diseases,” said Dr. Sargeant, former holder of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) chair in applied public health.

She hoped to find ways to improve zoonotic disease responses among experts in agriculture, government and animal and human health, according to the university.

Sargeant teamed up with Victoria Ng, Ph.D., a senior scientific evaluator at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), to create the new tool involving an Excel spreadsheet program. Based on a statistical method used in market research, the tool determines how people make choices based on various product attributes.

“In our case, the ‘product’ was zoonotic diseases, and instead of purchasing something, the decision is what to prioritize,” Sargeant said.

The tool helps users choose from among competing criteria ranging from disease duration to public health risk to mortality rates.

Prioritizing zoonotic diseases involves many more criteria than in a typical decision-making process, Ng added.

“Our study involved 21 criteria, about four times as many in a typical decision-making process.”

The tool allows users to consider 62 different zoonotic diseases and select which criteria to use, enabling each user to “change the rules,” said Sargeant.

For example, an industry user might want to look only at diseases in beef cattle, with a higher preference given to criteria relating to cost and number of animals potentially affected. A public health policy maker, however, might want to look at all diseases that could affect human health, with higher preference given to criteria relating to transmission potential, duration and mortality.

The tool weighs the criteria and presents lists based on the respondent’s evaluation, leaving analysis and decisions up to the user.

Its database reflects international research conducted by Ng that involved about 3,000 professionals in multiple human and animal health disciplines as well as members of the general public.

Although the Guelph team considered commercializing the tool, in the end, they decided to make it free to download.

“What was important to us was ensuring that the people who would benefit from it had access to it, and would be able to use it,” Sargeant said.

The download is available at the university website here. 

(Scroll down to “zoonotic disease prioritization tool.” Instructions on how to use the tool are provided in the tab ‘MCDA Tool’ of the Excel spreadsheet.)

Funding was provided by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs-U of G partnership research program under the emergency management theme. Other supporters were CIHR, PHAC, Public Health Ontario and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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