Social Health Site Sickweather Predicts Early Flu Season

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, according to All Things Digital, which first reported the news.

The social health site declared flu season open on October 18, following a 77% increase in social media reports mentioning the flue from August-October of this year. That put it a month and a half ahead of the CDC, which only made its own official announcement that flu season had begun on December 3.

The timing of both announcements indicates that flu season is kicking off early this year, as it usually starts in mid-December or January. Somewhat ominously, Sickweather also observed a roughly 30% increase in the total volume of flu-related chatter compared to last year.

The last few years have seen growing interest in using social media to track public health trends. In November Accenture Federal Services announced that it received a $3 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security to develop a “biosurveillance” system that will allow the Office of Health Affairs to monitor and react to national health emergencies via social media. The system will enable the OHA to collect and analyze information from social media platforms to better “detect and respond to potential threats to national health security.”

In January of this year I wrote about an article documenting 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.

According to the authors, “During infectious disease outbreaks, data collected through health institutions and official reporting structures may not be available for weeks, hindering early epidemiologic assessment. By contrast, data from informal media are typically available in near real-time and could provide earlier estimates of epidemic dynamics.”

And last year, a presentation to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta by Dr. Caitlin Reed of the LA County Department of Public Health examined the role of social media in tracking an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease which was traced back to the Playboy Mansion. Social media played a role almost from the beginning of the outbreak, with a “cluster of respiratory illness reported by attendees via social media.” Social media was also central to the follow-up, allowing the LACDPH to send an online survey to all 715 conference attendees.

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