@Choo: Can Twitter Track The Flu?

Dec 19, 2011, 10:15 AM

Now that flu season is upon us, more and more Americans will be tweeting about aches and pains and other symptoms that could signal the onset of the flu.

Pioneer grantee Philip Polgreen and his colleagues at the University of Iowa in Iowa City suggests that social media tools such as Twitter and Foursquare could one day be used to track flu activity—and give public health officials a heads up if activity takes a turn for the worse.

Polgreen and his colleagues published a study last May in the scientific journal PLoS One that tracked millions of tweets during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. They discovered that many Americans used Twitter to express concerns about the flu or talk about early symptoms such as a fever. The researchers collected tweets that used the words “flu,” “fever,” and  other related terms and analyzed them—finding that Twitter data could be used to estimate the incidence of the flu in real time.

Currently, the system the CDC uses to track reported cases of influenza has a time lag of several weeks, giving the flu a chance to spread. Polgreen and his colleagues believe that Twitter might help speed up that process by alerting public health officials about an increase in flu symptoms in real time. The early warning might provide officials the time they need to curtail the spread of the flu or to urge more people to line up for flu shots.

And what about getting a head start on information about where the flu is spreading? The Iowa team recently analyzed data from FourSquare, a social media application that permits users to “check in” and record their current location in exchange for incentives, like coupons.

The information could also be used, the team says, to track the location of individuals infected with the flu or some other contagious disease—and then send alerts to public health officials trying to contain an emerging disease threat.

The team presented the early findings from the study at the International Society for Disease Surveillance meeting held in Atlanta on December 7-8.

Polgreen also says that the Twitter stream might be used to look for public misinformation about the flu—like the mistaken belief that antibiotics can combat it. Twitter reveals all kinds of fears, concerns and behaviors and might give public health officials insight into the myths they should address in public education campaigns.

Such real-time information could also inform the CDC about overuse of antibiotics. On November 14, the CDC launched an annual campaign to curtail the unnecessary use of antibiotics given the estimate that about 50 percent of all antibiotic use is unnecessary. Furthermore, research by Polgreen and colleagues published last July in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology suggests that antibiotic use goes way up during flu season.

Antibiotics, however, do nothing to combat the flu or other viral infections. Think about that—or better yet tweet about it—the next time you get an ache or pain that signals the flu.

Let us know what you think: When you feel sick this flu season, will you tweet about your experience?

You can also vote for "The Use of Twitter to Track Levels of Disease Activity and Public Concern in the U.S. During the Influenza A H1N1 Pandemic," published in PLoS ONE in May, as one of RWJF's Most Influential Research Articles of 2011.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.