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Historical health records ‘could help predict future pandemics’


Roskilde professor leads Nordic project to investigate pandemics from a historical perspective

An interdisciplinary research project funded by NordForsk is using personal health records from across the Nordic region to investigate pandemics from a historical perspective.

The project was one of 12 singled out for support at the end of last year by NordForsk, which supports Nordic research, operates under the Nordic Council and is funded by agencies in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland.

The detailed health records, which stretch back up to 400 years, will give the Nordic countries a unique possibility to understand the future by looking back, said project leader Lone Simonsen, a professor of population health sciences at Roskilde University in Denmark.

“Because of many years of research into historical pandemics, I was one of those who years ago judged that the next pandemic could be a coronavirus and said in early 2020 that Covid-19 was a pandemic,” she said. “This was because I had looked at historical patterns in influenza pandemics over 100 years and had an idea of what to look for.”

Simonsen said that mathematical models would be used to understand the mortality patterns of past pandemics derived from the health records. “In this way, we can to a certain extent assess and understand how future pandemics may develop,” she said.

Cross-Scandinavian network

In most Nordic countries, health records have been kept by the church and official authorities for several centuries. One example given by NordForsk is evidence from health records of how Denmark successfully controlled smallpox through vaccinations in the early 19th century.

The Nordic system of public health registry has also proved useful in large-scale cancer research by enabling the tracing of exposure to hazardous components in the environment on an individual level.

However, NordForsk pointed out that there were some differences between the Nordic countries that affected the comparability of data. In Sweden, for example, personal ID numbers are in the public domain and can be traced in the data, whereas these numbers are considered confidential in Denmark.

Simonsen said that the “fantastic” health data in Denmark, Norway and Sweden had been underused in the understanding of infectious diseases. Another advantage of the project, she said, is that scientists in different countries will now be more aware of what their colleagues are researching, thereby preventing research duplication.

“Thanks to this support, we can now establish a cross-Scandinavian research network,” Simonsen said. “This will strengthen Nordic cooperation to prevent and handle future pandemics.”