Researchers Tap Google, Twitter To Help Track Disease Outbreaks

Monitoring Internet search traffic can help researchers predict when hospital emergency departments could see a surge in influenza cases, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, Time's "Healthland" reports.

For the study, researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine compared Baltimore-specific data from the Google Flu Trends website with statistics from Johns Hopkins Hospital, including data on emergency department crowding and laboratory tests for flu.

Google Flu Trends works by tracking the number of online searches for flu information across various regions (Blue, "Healthland," Time, 1/11).

Using the Google Flu Trends site, researchers found that the number of online searches for flu information increased at the same time that the hospital's pediatric ED experienced a rise in cases of children with flu-like symptoms (Bowman, FierceHealthIT, 1/10). The Google Flu Trends data had a moderate correlation with patient volume in the adult ED ("Healthland," Time, 1/11).

According to the researchers, the Google Flu Trends website provides information signaling an uptick in flu cases between seven and 10 days earlier than CDC's U.S. Influenza Sentinel Provider Surveillance Network.

Researchers said they hope that platforms like Google Flu Trends could help hospital administrators anticipate flu outbreaks and make appropriate staffing and capacity planning decisions (FierceHealthIT, 1/10).

Study Finds Twitter Helped Track Cholera in Haiti

In related news, a recent study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that using Twitter could help researchers track cholera outbreaks in Haiti quicker than traditional surveillance methods, National Journal reports.

Cholera broke out in Haiti in October 2010, several months after the country's January 2010 earthquake. About 500,000 people contracted the disease and about 7,000 people died from it.

For the study, researchers from Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School searched for Twitter posts that included the word "cholera." They also examined reports from a Children's Hospital Boston's HealthMap project, which uses news reports, blogs and other online content to monitor disease trends (Fox, National Journal, 1/11).

Researchers found that the informal data from Twitter and HealthMap provided indications of the cholera outbreak up to two weeks before official government public health reports.

Rumi Chunara -- lead author of the study and a research fellow at HealthMap and Harvard Medical School -- said informal media such as Twitter and HealthMap could help public health officials "gain early insight into an evolving epidemic" and plan their response sooner (Hirschfeld, London Guardian, 1/12).


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