Colds and flu

Updated 09 July 2014

See if there's flu near you

It's mostly when kids or colleagues get the sniffles that we know the flu season is upon us. Technology is changing that as we speak, and by keeping an eye on digital disease trackers, you can be forewarned and set up defences.

Travelling to the Northern Hemisphere or even simply up country any day soon?

You may want to check out Google's Flu Trends map or cast an eye on Healthmap first to see if you're flying right into a cold and flu storm. 

Most of us have some social media profile, whether it's Twitter, Facebook or even Pinterest.

Now clever people interested in global health issues are taking note of what we post to see if they can pick up health trends and possible disease outbreaks.

It's called digital epiodemiology or digital disease tracking and the so-called ''epidemic intelligence", gathered as we tell our friends about our health problems, flows along with information gathered via news and press reports, blogs, chat rooms and analyses of web searches to governments' health departments, global disease control centres and an increasing number of online disease monitors. 

Experts say that, collectively, these sources give us a view of global health that is fundamentally different from that yielded by disease reporting in traditional public health infrastructures.

Introducing: Google flu trends

If you want a bird's eye view of flu outbreaks across the world, visit Google Flu Trends in realtime

Here's a graph representation of the flu in SA on 6 July: 

A snapshot of flu activity in Africa, with the Western Cape clearly experiencing high intensity. Dat: July 6 2014. Red is high alert, green is minimal risk. 


How does it work? Google explains

Each week, millions of users around the world search for health information online. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. 

Of course, not every person who searches for "flu" is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together. 

By counting how often they see these search queries, they can estimate how much flu is circulating in different countries and regions around the world. 

Google Flu Trends is currently available for a number of countries around the world (including South Africa) and is updated every day.

Other disease trackers

In 2006, Clark Freifield of the Computational Epidemiology group at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School and Dr. John Brownstein of the Children’s Hospital in Boston in the States developed the HealthMap system, an online platform that mines informal sources for disease outbreak monitoring. 

Explore: See diseases in your region on Healthmap

HealthMap brings together disparate data sources, including online news aggregators, eyewitness reports, expert-curated discussions and validated official reports, to achieve an intuitive and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. 

The freely available Web site and mobile app 'Outbreaks Near Me' deliver real-time intelligence on a broad range of emerging infectious diseases for a diverse audience, which includes local health departments, governments, clinicians and international travellers.

From Twitter Health - If you're near Twitter user @mari_so_fly right now, you may catch what she's got.

twitter health map

How social media is used to gather health data and disease outbreaks

Facebook Likes Predict Obesity” – researchers at Harvard Medical School took behaviour either positively or negatively linked to obesity – namely, being active or being sedentary - and then looked at the proportion of adults who liked related things on Facebook. 

Twitter Could Tell You Where Flu Is Ramping Up” – researchers examined tweets that originated within a 17-mile radius of 11 different cities between 31 August 31 and 4  March 2013, recording the usernames, locations, tweet information (whether it was a tweet or retweet) and any links used in the tweets.

Can Twitter Predict Where You'll Get Food Poisoning?” – A team of computer scientists from the University of Rochester in the US created nEmesis – a system that can track food poisoning by parsing mountains of geo-tagged data from Twitter.

More recently, social media was used in sharing and tracking disease information during the 2013 H7N9 influenza outbreak in China. If a new strain of influenza virus emerges under certain conditions, a pandemic could ensue with the potential to cause millions of deaths (as happened e.g. in 1918).

The good news? 

If disease outbreaks can be detected early, we can reduce the number of people who are affected. It will also enable public health officials and health professionals to respond better to seasonal epidemics and pandemics.

With 6.8 billion mobile-phones and 2.9 billion people online, it's getting increasingly hard for any micro-organism to spread undetected for long.

Read more:

Can TB outbreaks be predicted
Bird flu, pig flu and now bat flu
How Social Media helps monitor disease outbreaks

Sources: Google Flu Trends, Healthmap, The Atlantic Cities, Twitter Health, Huffington Post, Health24

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Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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