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Crowdsourcing tracks influenza outbreaks across the US

US: A severe flu strain has hit the US and is spreading to start the year 2013. As of December 29, 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorised the illness as “widespread” in 41 states and 7 other states are seeing regional activity.

Influenza A H3N2 was the most commonly detected influenza subtype nationwide.

In tracking the flu, physicians and public health officials are using a host of new surveillance tools like crowdsourcing and social media. Such tools let them get a sense of the flu”s reach in real-time rather than wait weeks for doctor”s offices and state health departments to report in.

Pulling data from online sources “is no different than getting information on over-the-counter medication or thermometer purchases [to track against an outbreak],” said Philip Polgreen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa.

The most successful of these endeavors, Google Flu Trends, analyses flu-related Internet search terms like “flu symptoms” or “flu medication” to estimate flu activity in different areas. It tracks flu outbreaks globally.

Another tool, HealthMap , which is sponsored by Boston Children”s Hospital, mines online news reports to track outbreaks in real time. Sickweather draws from posts on Twitter and Facebook that mention the flu for its data.

People can be flu-hunters themselves with Flu Near You, a project that asks people to report their symptoms once a week. So far more than 38,000 people have signed up for this crowdsourced virus tracker. And of course, there”s an app for that.

Both Finelli, a Flu Near You user, and Polgreen find the new tools exciting but agree that they have limits. “It”s not as if we can replace traditional surveillance. It”s really just a supplement, but it”s timely,” said Polgreen.

When people have timely warning that there”s flu in the community, they can get vaccinated, and hospitals can plan ahead. According to a 2012 study in Clinical Infectious Diseases, Google Flu Trends has shown promise predicting emergency room flu traffic. Some researchers are even using a combination of the web database and weather data to predict when outbreaks will peak.

As for the current flu season, it”s still impossible to predict week-to-week peaks and troughs. “We expect that it will last a few more weeks, but we can never tell how bad it”s going to get,” said Finelli.

Source: National Geographic