Heerboth watches as an Indian doctor shines a light into the unconscious girl’s dark brown eyes. Her grandfather says she has a fever after bathing in the Ganges when temperatures were near freezing. The doctor quickly determines she’s got flu-like symptoms, is dehydrated and possibly contagious. While he notes her ailments in a logbook, a nurse leads the grandfather to lay the girl down on a nearby hospital bed, and then gives her an injection to help with the dehydration.
Hours later, the girl’s diagnosis is visible in an app that can be seen by Heerboth’s colleagues in New York, Boston, Delhi and Mumbai. She is one data point among thousands. Researchers can see her age, chief complaint, diagnosis and prescribed medications on line graphs and pie charts. On their screens, they are watching the pulse of the Maha Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering.
Such mass gatherings can be hotbeds of disease transmission. From cholera to bird flu, researchers are studying how diseases spread at such events, in the hopes of preventing a future pandemic.
But in this case, Heerboth and his team have a broader goal. Every 12 years — over just a few weeks — the Kumbh’s network of hospitals, roads, homes and businesses is built anew. For the team, the Kumbh is a megacity under a microscope, one that can be monitored in a top-down way that would be impossible for an existing city.