Commentary

Social Media Helps... Epidemiologists?

Don't call it a killer app, but social media is being adopted by yet another unexpected profession: epidemiologists who study the origins and spread of disease, and who are now using online networks like Facebook and Twitter to identify and communicate with affected individuals.

One recent example -- an outbreak of a respiratory illness, most likely Legionnaire's Disease, that was traced back to a trade conference party held at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles -- was the subject of a report on social media and epidemiology presented by Dr. Caitlin Reed of the LA County Department of Public Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta last week; the Los Angeles Times obtained a copyof the report through a Public Records Act request.

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According to Reed's presentation, social media played a role almost from the beginning of the outbreak, with a "cluster of respiratory illness reported by attendees via social media." In fact, the first public reports of the outbreak came via social media -- before traditional media or the public health service itself. After the party on February 3, the first blog post reporting the sickness came on the morning of February 6, the first Facebook post on the evening of February 7, and the first Wikipedia post describing the outbreak on the morning of February 11. It was only on the evening of February 11 that the LACDPH received its first inquiry about the disease outbreak; the first news report came the following day.

 

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. One attendee and Facebook user started a "Domainerflu count" on Facebook, asking "Who else caught the disease at DFG?" and tallying scores of affected individuals. Overall 79 people self-reported their illness on social media, via Facebook, blog comments, or tweets.

 

Following this initial wave of self-reported cases, the LACDPH sent an online survey to all 715 conference attendees, which generated 432 responses, including 300 in the first two days. 123 of the 432 respondents reported symptoms that matched the general disease profile, including fever, cough, headache, and shortness of breath. This survey data also allowed the LACDPH to establish a general chronology for the disease, which helps establish that it is in fact the same ailment, as well as narrowing the range of possible culprits: as it turned out, the vast majority of affected individuals became ill one to two days after exposure, a pattern consistent with Legionnaire's Disease.

 

The role of social media wasn't all positive, however: Reed's report to the CDC said that alongside the advantages for communicating with a large, geographically dispersed group of attendees, social media also amplified incorrect media reports, forcing the LACDPH to waste time responding to rumors. She also noted that the informal nature of social media makes it difficult to observe the proper medical protocols when communicating with potentially-affected individuals.

 

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