Google’s flu tracking could sound early warnings

A novel method of disease tracking âÄî using the Internet to find out whatâÄôs plaguing the publicâÄôs collective mind âÄî was introduced last week by Google . Using Centers for Disease Control flu statistics, Google researchers found that flu-related search queries, like âÄúcold remediesâÄù and âÄúthermometersâÄù , turn out to be good indicators of actual incidences of flu-like illness. By identifying where the searches are coming from, Google created a map that displays state by state estimates of flu-like activity, which is updated daily. So far, itâÄôs unclear exactly how public health professionals or the public will use the tool, but because Google can crunch search-frequency data faster than public health agencies can collect clinic reports and do lab tests, the system may provide a warning of impending increases in flu prevalence. Early warning, according to Google , means potential for faster response from health professionals, especially in the case of a pandemic. However, Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz said they probably wonâÄôt be using the tool this year âÄî theyâÄôll wait for further validation and guidance from the CDC about how and when to use it. It looks like a promising general indicator of flu activity, he said, but unlike MDH surveillance data, it doesnâÄôt give specific information like the number of outbreaks in nursing homes or schools, or what types of strains are circulating. If it does turn out to be a valid early warning tool, Schultz said it could be used by physicians as an indicator they should test more for influenza. The test has a higher predictive value when there is more flu in the community, so doctors may be reluctant to test too early. But if this model indicates high flu prevalence, physicians can be more confident that they should test, he said. It could also be used to promote flu shots, Schultz said. If people know the flu is out there, they might be more motivated to get vaccinated and make sure theyâÄôre using good hand hygiene and âÄúgood cough and sneeze hygiene.âÄù âÄúThose are things we try to encourage anyway,âÄù he said, âÄúbut this could serve as reinforcement for those efforts.âÄù Christina Hong , an environmental science policy and management senior, said the site doesnâÄôt sound like something sheâÄôd use. âÄúI know when I get sick, everybody gets sick âÄî itâÄôs not avoidable,âÄù she said. Mariah Hutchinson , an art and French junior, also said she probably wouldnâÄôt use it. Neither student got a flu shot this year. They both said a high prevalence of flu like symptoms in the state probably wouldnâÄôt influence them to do so, but they said they might take an extra step to stay healthy. Dave Golden , Boynton Health Service marketing director, said the concept is interesting, but itâÄôs unclear exactly how it could be applied. Golden said the clinics at BHS serve as sensitive barometers of what kinds of illnesses are going around, and that knowledge helps it function better as a public health service. On the other hand, many public health agencies donâÄôt have clinics, so they get delayed information âÄî and perhaps this tool could serve as the same kind of indicator that clinics serve for BHS. He added that it would be nice to see the concept applied to something like the stomach flu, or a food-borne illness. Going global with the tool and applying it to other illnesses may be the next steps. However, in a paper describing the tool, Google researchers point out some of the challenges of applying the concept to other diseases. For example, search query-symptom correlations are only meaningful when applied to large populations âÄî GoogleâÄôs attempts to reliably detect smaller outbreaks of other diseases using search queries havenâÄôt yet succeeded, the authors say. Another challenge is that in the developed world, people with severe or alarming symptoms may be more likely to consult the emergency room than the Internet. At the very least, it can be another reason to remind others to get vaccinated. If people see high flu incidence in states where elderly relatives live, they might think, âÄúI better call mother or my mother-in-law and make sure sheâÄôs got her flu shot,âÄù Schultz said.