As the Zika epidemic continues to unfold, most affected countries are flying blind: they have limited government disease surveillance systems in place to track new cases. That leaves public health officials unable to estimate how fast Zika is spreading, where the hotspots are and when the outbreak will peak — much less contain it and prepare for cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, both now presumed to be caused by the Zika virus.
“One of the things we really struggled with in the early days of Zika was a lack of official data sources,” says research fellow Maia Majumder, MPH, of the Computational Epidemiology Group at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Surveillance has been really lagging. When we don’t know how many cases there are day to day, week to week, it’s really hard to characterize how bad an outbreak is.”
A study this week led by Majumder suggests a readily available data source for estimating actual case counts on the ground: online local news reports, adjusted using data from Google search trends. …
Early influenza detection and the ability to predict outbreaks are critical to public health. Reliable estimates of when influenza will peak can help drive proper timing of flu shots and prevent health systems from being blindsided by unexpected surges, as happened in the 2012-2013 flu season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects accurate data, but with a time lag of one to two weeks. Google Flu Trends began offering real-time data in 2008, based on people’s Internet searches for flu-related terms. But it ultimately failed, at least in part because not everyone who searches “flu” is actually sick. As of last year, Google instead now sends its search data to scientists at the CDC, Columbia University and Boston Children’s Hospital.
Now, a Boston Children’s-led team demonstrates a more accurate way to pick up flu trends in near-real-time — at least a week ahead of the CDC — by harnessing data from electronic health records (EHRs). …
In the blockbuster Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow travels to Hong Kong on business and returns to suburban Minneapolis with flu-like symptoms. Within days she is dead. Paltrow is the index case in a pandemic that sweeps across the world. Contagion is a dramatic example of how a series of mundane, every day activities—such as shaking hands, drinking from a glass and blowing on dice for good luck—can rapidly and effectively spread disease.
Starting Friday, this year’s summer Olympics will kick off in London, the international hub of Europe. Can you imagine the potential for disease spread in a city that will host ten million athletes and tourists from all over the world? …
In his essay, “We, the Web Kids,” Polish poet and pundit Piotr Czerski writes: “We don’t use the Internet…we live on the Internet and along it…communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.”
As Czerski emphasizes, we want the option of “here and now, without waiting for the file to download.” We (myself included) expect immediacy. So in my role as a public health advocate in the digital age, waiting for an official infectious disease outbreak report to come weeks after the outbreak started—as often happens with traditional reporting methods—is unacceptable. Earlier detection of disease outbreaks means earlier response—and more lives saved. This video produced by NPR illustrates the “web kid” mindset when it comes to public health:
It was after the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake that mobile-friendly social media services like Twitter and Ushahidi came into their own as disaster management and relief tools. With the nation’s already unsteady infrastructure destroyed, these tools helped speed the deployment of people and supplies to where they were needed by giving relief workers on-the-ground intelligence about what was happening, what was needed and where in nearly real time.
Before you know it, flu season – that miserable time of sneezing, snuffling, coughing, and generally feeling blah – will be upon us again. And as with anything, the best way to deal with the flu is to be prepared for it.
But when, exactly, is the right time to start stocking up on tissues and looking for vaccination clinics? You could go with the conventional wisdom: Get the annual flu vaccine in the fall and spend the next five months avoiding anyone with bleary eyes and a runny nose.
Or, to try to get a more targeted read on when the flu will appear in your town, you could turn to the power of the web. In 2008 – a few months before H1N1 influenza appeared on the scene – Google launched Google Flu Trends, which mined user search data to gauge flu activity on a national, state, and even (in some cases) city level.
The H1N1 outbreak proved to be a tipping point for online disease tracking tools. Recognizing this, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is getting into the act with the CDC Flu App Challenge. A contest run through Challenge.gov, the Flu App Challenge encourages developers to come up with “an innovative use of technology to raise awareness of influenza and/or educate consumers on ways to prevent and treat the flu.” Submitted apps – for the web, for desktop computers, for mobile devices – use publicly available data feeds, including at least one maintained by the CDC, to promote healthy behavior for flu prevention. All of the submitted apps are eligible for several awards, including a People’s Choice Award chosen by public vote. …