Machine learning takes a village: Assessing neighbourhood-level vulnerability for an overdose and infectious disease outbreak

Multiple areas in the United States of America (USA) are experiencing high rates of overdose and outbreaks of bloodborne infections, including HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV), due to non-sterile injection drug use. We aimed to identify neighbourhoods at increased vulnerability for overdose and infectious disease outbreaks in Rhode Island, USA. The primary aim was to pilot machine learning methods to identify which neighbourhood-level factors were important for creating “vulnerability assessment scores” across the state. The secondary aim was to engage stakeholders to pilot an interactive mapping tool and visualize the results.

Methods: From September 2018 to November 2019, we conducted a neighbourhood-level vulnerability assessment and stakeholder engagement process named The VILLAGE Project (Vulnerability Investigation of underlying Local risk And Geographic Events). We developed a predictive analytics model using machine learning methods (LASSO, Elastic Net, and RIDGE) to identify areas with increased vulnerability to an outbreak of overdose, HIV and HCV, using census tract-level counts of overdose deaths as a proxy for injection drug use patterns and related health outcomes. Stakeholders reviewed mapping tools for face validity and community distribution.

Results: Machine learning prediction models were suitable for estimating relative neighbourhood-level vulnerability to an outbreak. Variables of importance in the model included housing cost burden, prior overdose deaths, housing density, and education level. Eighty-nine census tracts (37%) with no prior overdose fatalities were identified as being vulnerable to such an outbreak, and nine of those were identified as having a vulnerability assessment score in the top 25%. Results were disseminated as a vulnerability stratification map and an online interactive mapping tool.

Conclusion: Machine learning methods are well suited to predict neighborhoods at higher vulnerability to an outbreak. These methods show promise as a tool to assess structural vulnerabilities and work to prevent outbreaks at the local level.

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