Researchers Tapping Social Media Tools To Find, Monitor Diseases

Social media sites -- including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Foursquare and Wikipedia -- are changing how epidemiologists discover and track the spread of disease, the New York Times reports.

In the past, public health officials would investigate outbreaks with diagnostic kits and by gathering test results and data without telling the public that investigations were under way or announcing the results for months. Now, new technology is allowing more individuals to get involved in the disease-hunting process, and more epidemiologists are considering using social networking sites to track pathogens, the Times reports.

In the past few years, researchers have identified regional spikes in seasonal flu at least one week before CDC by tracking online search queries and following Twitter streams. In addition, researchers are using Craigslist data to try to identify patterns of sexual behavior associated with an increase in syphilis cases.

Potential of Social Media for Disease Tracking

John Brownstein -- an assistant pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School -- teamed up with Clark Freifeld, a software developer, to design HealthMap, a website that pinpoints global health outbreaks in real time by scouring the Internet for disease reports. It looks at local news articles, blogs, Twitter and official CDC and World Health Organization reports. In a related mobile application, called Outbreaks Near Me, users can detect where infectious hazards are found.

Brownstein also is working with CDC and Google to develop online tracking tools for dengue fever.

According to Philip Polgreen -- director of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's emerging infections network --  social media can present a trove of new data and should become an important addition to traditional disease surveillance, especially for new and emerging conditions with little or no historical information.

Skeptics Raise Concerns

Meanwhile, skeptics of using social media to track disease say Internet-based searches can be unproductive and spread large amounts of misinformation.

Other opponents say that using social media can provide only the illusion of better disease tracking, noting that it is difficult to ensure that resources are pooling an even amount of information from different areas.

In addition, online data can be skewed, as most social networking users live in urban areas and tend to be younger, according to the Times.

Ruth Lynfield -- medical director of Minnesota's health department and the state's epidemiologist -- asked how effective social media can be at disease tracking when not everyone uses such tools (Garrity, New York Times, 6/13).

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