Social media websites and other online resources are helping public health officials detect disease outbreaks sooner, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Several studies of past disease outbreaks have found that social media and other Web-based platforms were able to accurately track disease activity faster than traditional surveillance tools.
Examples of Web Resources for Tracking Disease
Google Flu Trends is a project developed to monitor disease activity based on search terms such as "muscle aches" and "thermometer."
The project has produced results similar to CDC, which surveys influenza activity based on reports from physicians, hospitals and clinical laboratories. However, Google Flu Trends sometimes can detect disease activity a week or more before CDC.
Infection disease experts also are examining Twitter to identify early stages of cholera and dengue fever outbreaks in developing countries where infrastructure is lacking but many residents have a cell phone and Internet access.
Experts say that in the near future, social media tools could be integrated with traditional disease surveillance to develop faster disease predictions and identifications.
Comments on New Disease Tracking Tools
Charles Chiu -- an infectious disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco -- said, "Public health agencies are limited by resources and funding," adding "Social media provides an excellent means of monitoring outbreaks before they spread. You could track the emergence of an epidemic before you even know the cause of it."
James Watt -- chief of the division of communicable disease control in California's Public Health Department -- said, "There's a lot of potential" in using social media to detect disease outbreaks. He added, "The closer you can get to the person who's actually experiencing an illness, the sooner you're going to find out that something is going on" (Allday, San Francisco Chronicle, 11/13).