On Tuesday, Google.org introduced Flu Trends, a new tool that will track search terms entered by Internet users to help U.S. public health officials identify potential regional outbreaks in almost real time, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Flu Trends records the number of searches for terms related to flu, such as "thermometer" and "cold remedies," operating under the assumption that an influx of searches for such terms in a certain region might indicate an outbreak (Kopytoff, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/12). Flu Trends displays the results on a U.S. map and includes a chart of trends in activity nationwide rated on a scale of "minimal" to "intense."
In addition, Flu Trends includes flu prevention information from CDC, a flu vaccine locator and links to news related to flu (Guth, Wall Street Journal, 11/12).
Flu Trends, which Google developed in cooperation with CDC, last year produced information on the spread of the flu two weeks earlier than the agency compiled similar data.
Google applied Flu Trends to searches conducted by Internet users over the last five years and compared the information with CDC data to ensure the accuracy of the tool (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/12).
Lyn Finelli, who heads the influenza surveillance team at CDC, said that Flu Trends "maps very closely to the influenza-like trends that we see in the U.S" (Wall Street Journal, 11/12).
CDC spokesperson Glen Nowak said, "The sooner we have indication that flu is in a community, the earlier public health officials can take action" (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/12).
Google hopes to expand Flu Trends to track other diseases worldwide.
Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said, "From a technological perspective, it is the beginning."
A paper on the methodology of Flu Trends likely will appear in a future issue of the journal Nature (Helft, New York Times, 11/12).