Monday, February 02, 2009

Google Detecting influenza epidemics

Staff of Google in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have published a letter in Letter in the prestigious scientific journal Nature on "Detecting influenza epidemics using search engine query data". The idea is that people with the flu will do web searches about it, thus alerting authorities to an outbreak. This is a cleaver idea, but not the one I had in mind when I proposed using the web for an combating avian influenza epidemic.

Seasonal influenza epidemics are a major public health concern, causing tens of millions of respiratory illnesses and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide each year1. In addition to seasonal influenza, a new strain of influenza virus against which no previous immunity exists and that demonstrates human-to-human transmission could result in a pandemic with millions of fatalities2. Early detection of disease activity, when followed by a rapid response, can reduce the impact of both seasonal and pandemic influenza3, 4. One way to improve early detection is to monitor health-seeking behaviour in the form of queries to online search engines, which are submitted by millions of users around the world each day. Here we present a method of analysing large numbers of Google search queries to track influenza-like illness in a population. Because the relative frequency of certain queries is highly correlated with the percentage of physician visits in which a patient presents with influenza-like symptoms, we can accurately estimate the current level of weekly influenza activity in each region of the United States, with a reporting lag of about one day. This approach may make it possible to use search queries to detect influenza epidemics in areas with a large population of web search users. ...

From: Detecting influenza epidemics using search engine query data, Jeremy Ginsberg, Matthew H. Mohebbi, Rajan S. Patel, Lynnette Brammer, Mark S. Smolinski & Larry Brilliant, Nature , doi:10.1038/nature07634; Received 14 August 2008; Accepted 13 November 2008; Published online 19 November 2008

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