Social Networking Sites Detecting Flu Outbreaks

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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Twitter and other social networking sites could be used to track flu epidemics and disease 'hot spots', providing public health experts vital 'early warning' information to combat illness, audiences at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) annual conference at Warwick University will be told today.

Currently, most disease tracking is done through doctors reporting cases of illness they have seen in their surgeries or via NHS Direct. Although a very reliable system it does not account for people who don't go to the doctor.

But with Twitter and other such sites where users are voluntarily reporting their symptoms on the Web; doctors can - in real time - collect vital information and keep track of when symptoms have been reported, where and how often.

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Computer scientists will present at the HPA conference the results of research that has used a computer programme to track and analyse messages posted on Twitter that contain words and phrases related to flu such as "I have the flu" and "I have Swine Flu".

Ed de Quincey, a computer scientist at City University London who has conducted the research and developed the system with colleagues at the City eHealth Research Centre said "As UK public health agencies and the NHS are preparing for the approaching flu season amid the H1N1 pandemic, new forms of social interaction via web sites such as Twitter and Facebook can expand the sources used in monitoring such outbreaks."

"The hope is that gathering voluntary reports of symptoms posted by users of social networking sites, will allow for faster collection of vital, real time data. The flu pandemic was the perfect opportunity to test this idea and we found that at least 4,000 people reported flu symptoms via Twitter since May 2009."

"We are currently analysing over a million 'tweets' that we have collected and exploring the potential of incorporating data from other social networking websites. We hope in the future to expand this approach to investigate other health issues such as drug and substance abuse."

"This will not replace more in-depth studies and tests conducted by public health agencies but could be a good addition to current surveillance systems, enhance the way health officials track how diseases spread and may serve as an early warning system."

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