One of social media’s many nifty (if unexpected) applications is in the field of epidemiology, where scientists and lay folk can use social platforms to trace the origins and spread of disease. In the latest example of social media epidemiology, Facebook users in Minnesota were able to identify tainted food as the source of a strep throat outbreak.
According to a report published in the July 18 edition of Clinical Infectious Diseases, the outbreak affected 18 out of 63 attendees at a banquet for a high school dance team, all of whom developed strep throat within three days of attending the banquet. After seeing multiple posts about team members falling ill, a parent alerted the Minnesota health department, which then conducted phone interviews with attendees and their family members and analyzed DNA from strep bacteria samples, eventually determining that the strep came from a pasta dish at the banquet. The pasta dish had been prepared by a parent who reported having strep throat three weeks before.
Previously, in 2011 I
wrote about a case where the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health used social media to trace an outbreak
of Legionnaire's Disease at a trade conference party held at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. Without any external prompting, social media helped establish that the disease was some kind of
infectious agent which could be traced back to the fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion. Overall 79 people self-reported their illness on social media, via Facebook, blog comments, or tweets.
In 2012 Sickweather, a social media-public health startup based in Baltimore, predicted the 2012 flu season six weeks in advance of the Centers for Disease Control, using social media trend-tracking and analysis. Also in 2012 I wrote about the use of Twitter to track a cholera outbreak in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. The article, “Social and News Media Enable Estimation of Epidemiological Patterns Early in the 2010 Haitian Cholera Outbreak,” published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, found that social media may be even better at tracking diseases than the established public health authorities.