The World Health Organization (WHO) admitted on Tuesday that it’s too late to contain swine flu, and experts say that it is now vital to track the spread of the virus in order to mitigate its effects. Vaccines and antivirals will be crucial to the effort, but tracking and communications technologies could also play a key role in monitoring the virus, distributing accurate health information, and quelling outbreaks.
Bloggers and social-networking sites were among the first to follow the outbreak’s rapid spread from its epicenter in Mexico–where swine flu has been linked to more than 150 deaths–to cities across the United States and on to Europe, Israel, and New Zealand.
The need for fast information has seen the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) build up a large following on Twitter. Groups ranging from fellow federal institutions, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to local Red Cross divisions, as well as many regular Twitter users, are employing the service to receive updates. Some experts, however, warn that Twitter can just as easily spread misinformation and panic. According to data from the medical tracking site Nielson, conversations related to swine flu reached 2 percent of all messages on Twitter over the weekend. By contrast, Google’s Flu Trends, a site that aims to spot flu outbreaks by monitoring search queries related to flu symptoms and treatment, has shown little increase in activity in recent days.
Some Twitter users have also been criticized for spreading misinformation by, for example, warning friends and followers against eating pork, which is not related to the spread of swine flu. Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, in New York, wrote in a blog post on Saturday, “Having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them.”
Meanwhile, other Internet tools are helping to track the spread of the virus geographically. HealthMap, which was created by researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston with support from Google, the CDC, the National Library of Medicine, and the Canadian Institute of Health Research, adds real-time news alerts, official medical information, and other data to a global tracking map.
Susan Perkins, a specialist in microbial evolution at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, NY, who has previously applied geographical information systems to the study of how viruses evolve, hopes that Internet technology and “the new field of info-epidemiology” can make a difference in future epidemics, if not in the current swine-flu outbreak. “Sites like HealthMap or Google Earth are a good new way to visualize data,” she says. “These readily accessible platforms also let people in diverse fields–public health, evolutionary biology, et cetera–share the same information.”
Perkins believes that being able to process viral genomes more quickly could make a big difference: “In the future, I would hope that diseases will be able to be better tracked with software that can combine genomic information with real geographic information. That will give us the most power to solve–and then hopefully break–transmission patterns.”