January 14, 2013

Facebook Flu


Maggie: You are sick. So the first thing you do? Probably complain about it online. And since 24 states are now experiencing high influenza-like illness, your Facebook feed might be getting a little cluttered.

Now, many researchers are taking your online complaints seriously to track the flu. The Facebook app Help, I Have The Flu uses different clues to figure out which of your friends are sick. It scans status updates looking for words like ‘flu,’ ‘sneezing’ and ‘coughing.’ It even notices the times your friends post. For example, several late night posts may mean a person isn’t sleeping enough and might be more susceptible to catching, and passing along, the bug.

Dr. David Rossi: The CDC, for instance, uses that sort of information on how to triangulate where illnesses originate from. So, the idea is the same. I don’t know how accurate it will be because, of course, anybody can post anything they want, but I think it’s a fun idea.

Maggie: Other websites monitor things like search results and track news reports. Google Flu Trends analyzes how often people search for words like ‘flu symptoms’ in order to pinpoint regional and global trends. They also know that when more people start Googling ‘flu medication,’ more people are getting sick.

The site Health Map, which is sponsored by Boston Children’s Hospital, collects online news reports in order to follow outbreaks in real time.

Websites also rely on what is called crowd sourcing, when the general public is asked to gather and report certain information.

The site Sickweather asks people to share their symptoms and collects data from online posts. And Flu Near You has its members report flu warning signs every week.

Critics say online tools won’t replace traditional medical surveillance, but researchers are using social media information to help predict when outbreaks peak, prevent future epidemics and better distribute supplies of flu vaccinations to areas that need it the most.

But doctors say even with all this new internet information, your best bet is still the old standard.

Dr. Rossi: In general, if you are trying to avoid the flu, you just really want to do a lot of frequent hand washing, definitely avoid anywhere where somebody might be sneezing or coughing.

Maggie: Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.


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