Researchers Now Using Social Media to Track Flu Epidemics

September 4, 2013

Originally published on Oct. 24, 2011

In the U.S., flu season begins in October and can last up until May, with the peak of the season around January or February. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly monitors cases of flu-like symptoms. However, since these cases are diagnosed and reported manually by doctors, there is often a delay of up to two weeks before the cases are reported to the CDC. Researchers from University of Massachusetts Lowell’s (UMass Lowell) Computer Science Department, Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine, and Scientific Systems Company, Inc. are now using popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to help predict and track cases of influenza.

The Social Network-Enabled Flu Trends, or SNEFT, is a system that continuously collects flu data by monitoring all flu-related social media posts. UMass Lowell researchers collected 9.2 million flu-related tweets through Twitter from 2009 to 2011. Many scientific publications have presented a similar number of flu-like cases reported by the CDC. The real-time snapshot provided by social media aids in early detection and helps prevent outbreaks.

“As our technology evolves, so too does our ability to capture the burden of disease,” said Delmar Little, Influenza Surveillance Coordinator with the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). “These systems, while less useful to quantify flu cases at any given moment, are very useful because of their timeliness in early detection and ability to inform public health professionals of rising trends in disease.”

According to the research team utilizing SNEFT, seasonal flu epidemics result in approximately three to five million cases of severe illness and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide each year. Although the CDC’s FluView, a weekly surveillance report of influenza, is currently reporting low flu activity this month, the best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. It is especially important that young children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, and people 50 years and older get vaccinated because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications.

“Georgia’s county health departments have received initial shipments of the seasonal flu vaccine and have begun flu vaccination clinics. There is time for Georgians to be immunized before peak flu season hits,” said Ben Sloat, Special Populations Manager with the Immunization Program at DPH.


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