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New ESRI book explores how cartography can fight against disease

Cartographies of Disease: Maps, Mapping, and Medicine is a comprehensive survey of the technology of mapping and its relationship to the battle against disease. The new book from ESRI Press traces the history of medical mapping used by researchers struggling to understand epidemic disease from the 1690s to the present. The message is that our “new” epidemics follow a very old pattern. “AIDS, avian flu, hantavirus, influenza, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, and West Nile virus are new diseases following old patterns,” says author Tom Koch. “What’s happening today with all these conditions isn’t new. It fits the pattern of disease generation and diffusion that has been active for hundreds of years.”

A bioethicist and medical geographer, Koch has studied 300 years of medical maps and their related texts to understand the history of epidemic diseases and their relation to patterns of urban growth and international trade. In Cartographies of Disease, the Canadian author and researcher explores how mapping serves as an anchor for both the way a society thinks about disease and the manner in which scientists seek to understand the spread of any single disease.

What is new, Koch says, is a technology that makes medical mapping easier and more powerful. Traditional mapping on paper with pens has been transformed by a new generation of computerized mapping programs based on GIS technology. Designed to use databases of digitally stored health data increasingly available on the Web, the technology offers an extraordinary weapon in the battle to understand emerging epidemic diseases. Many public health organizations now store their data in digital files with locators that enable mapping. This permits an ever-broader range of people with little or no cartographic training to use basic mapping as a way to understand the location and spread of disease. That changes the mapping, but not necessarily the problems that are mapped.

“Across this history, and earlier, the culprits have been the same,” Koch says. “Trade is the avenue along which diseases spread; increased urban populations where poverty exists is the medium of their growth. The lesson is clear; we create the context that inhibits or promotes the growth and spread of disease. We can create new contexts in which growth is discouraged and disease spread limited.