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Epidemiologists Consider How Social Media Could be Harnessed to Predict Disease Outbreaks

September 4, 2013

Originally published March 5, 2012

Epidemiologists converged on Feb.16 at the 2012 International Conference on Digital Disease Detection at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. On the agenda is informal media-like Twitter, blog posts, and web searches-and how these could be applied to identify, track, and predict disease outbreaks. The meeting is sponsored by the CDC and Health Map, and run by a team of researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, which mines online data to identify and track disease outbreaks.

Although informal media is already being utilized by researchers, such as Twitter to track cholera outbreaks in Haiti, not everyone is ready to incorporate it into their surveillance. Informal data's reliability is yet untested, Andrea Dugas of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore told Nature. Informal data have also not been shown to help predict outbreaks, added Richard Rothman, an emergency-medicine physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who co-authored with Dugas a paper correlating influenza-related web searches with a spike in emergency room visits for the illness. Other researchers are concerned with sifting through the sea of possible data to find the pertinent information.

In the meantime, researchers caution that new ways to predict outbreaks will mean little if access health care lags. "Awareness of outbreaks doesn't necessarily change the pace or extent of intervention," David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto in Canada told Nature.

-Reprinted with permission of The Scientist