Government scientists have found that collecting information from social networking sites can provide valuable insight into the spread of infectious diseases.
The Health Protection Agency annual conference at Warwick University heard that social networking sites could be added to traditional disease surveillance methods in future.
Currently disease tracking relies on people calling the National Health Service Direct, going to their general practitioner or visiting hospital but that does not account for people who have mild illness and treat themselves at home without seeking medical help.
Searching for tweets including ‘I have flu’ or ‘I’ve got swine flu’ could help track the spread of the virus in real time, research has shown.
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 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.”
Google has found searches on its site have also given early warnings of flu outbreaks and has tracked the spread of flu state by state in America tracking flu as people enter ‘flu symptoms’ into the search engine.
It has found that the search analysis indicates an outbreak of flu earlier than conventional disease surveillance methods based on doctor visits.