Crucial information about disease outbreaks can be gleaned earlier.
Our systems for detecting outbreaks of disease are unreliable. Typically, word of outbreaks bubbles up as patients see health professionals, who report cases to authorities. Those authorities often can’t piece the reports together in time to prevent significant numbers of other people from getting sick.
Rumi Chunara, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is mining social media and other online sources for information outside of medical settings.
In one study, Chunara found that a rise in cholera-related Twitter posts in Haiti correlated with an outbreak of the disease. “That’s important, because it takes the ministry of health in Haiti a couple of weeks to get their data aggregated,” she says. In future outbreaks, tweets could help direct medical workers earlier and ensure that supplies like water purification tablets get where they’re needed.
Chunara knows that digital disease detection is not necessarily better. For instance, researchers have spotted inaccuracies in Google’s Flu Trends service, which analyzes Web searches and estimates the pervasiveness of the flu. But her goal is not to supplant the traditional chain of command in public health; instead she is augmenting it with new tidbits of information.
To get beyond what might be found from social media, she offered two-cent rewards to people in India who completed a survey about malaria, generating information that could guide deployment of diagnostic and treatment kits. For the United States, she helped develop Flu Near You, a site that creates flu maps based on user-submitted information about symptoms and diagnoses. She’s showing that you can get good data even from people who haven’t seen doctors.
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