USAID Zika Grand Challenge

When the Zika Virus outbreak first arose in 2015-2016, USAID created a pitch competition asking the public for ideas to a) reduce transmission of the virus, b) better monitor the spread of the virus, and c) improve public awareness of the dangers of Zika. Duke University also hosted a similar competition during the spring of my freshman year. I, along with a handful of classmates, decided this would be a fun opportunity to get involved on campus and address a real-world issue.

The summer Olympics were just around the corner, hosted in a Zika “hotspot” – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, public health officials were worried the Zika virus would spread around the world due to athletes and visitors to Brazil.

The challenges with the Zika virus are that it lacks visible symptoms and is therefore difficult to monitor its spread even though the virus can have devastating consequences, especially to pregnant women. Currently, the only tangible way public health officials monitor the virus is through doctors’ reports. Our solution to address these challenges was to utilize the power of social media.

Visitors headed to the Olympics are sure to post content to their social media platform. These social media data can be used to monitor who traveled to Zika hotspots. The users can be informed of the dangers of the Zika virus through notifications on the social media platform, and in turn, public health officials can use the data to determine how many travelers around the world may be exposed to the virus.

The advantages of this proposed solution are that it leverages existing platforms, technologies, and a large user base to collect data to ensure public health.This method can also be applied to future disease outbreaks and future global events like the World Cup, or New Years gatherings.

My team and I first pitched this idea at the Duke-hosted Zika Challenge. At the time, we were only given a few days to brainstorm the idea, a few workshops to refine the solution, and a short presentation period to present our solution. Nonetheless, our team was dedicated to the project, and even as we competed against teams of upperclassmen and graduate students, our idea won!

Through the next few months, we continued to refine our proposed project. We presented our project at the Alliances and Incentives in the Era of  Outbreaks Symposium hosted at Duke, and met a representative from the Gates Foundation who provided us with vital feedback. We met with and presented our project to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH; to have him tell us that this proposal was a great idea was incredibly validating.

In the summer of 2016, we were sponsored to travel to Washington DC and present our project to USAID for their nationwide competition. The USAID Zika Grand Challenge attracted industry professionals, academic professors, and public health officials to pitch their solutions to address the Zika problem, competing for up to $30 million in grant funding. The judges for the competition included representatives from USAID, Department of Defense officers, industry executives, and government officials from several Latin American countries. As a first-year undergraduate student, it was quite intimidating.

Note that we did a little touristing around the city first; we did not present to the US government in t-shirts and tank-tops.

This was an incredible learning experience. Few other students have such an amazing opportunity to meet so many influential and famous officials in the public health sector. As we continued to work through the proposed project, we ran into a few impassable road-blocks: Our project requires coordination between world governments, privately owned social media companies, and public sector public health officials. As students, we did not have the means or ability to successfully coordinate these different players and bring our idea to life. With time, I hope that we will one day be able to work together to bring a similar idea to life.

For more, check out this blog post I wrote for the I&E Website.