Google beats the CDC: Web tool predicts flu-related ED surge

Researchers tap Twitter to track cholera outbreaks

Topics: Information Technology

January 13, 2012

Need to track flu trends in your community? A new study in Clinical Infectious Diseases shows that a Google tool can predict surges in hospital flu visits more than a week before CDC.

For the study, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers compared Baltimore-specific data from the Google Flu Trends website, which estimates influenza outbreaks based on online searches for flu information, to ED crowding and laboratory statistics from Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Using Google Flu Trends, researchers found that the number of online searches for flu information increased at the same time that the hospital's pediatric ED experienced a rise in cases of children with flu-like symptoms. The Google Flu Trends data had a moderate correlation with patient volume in the adult ED. Moreover, Google Flu Trends signaled an uptick in flu cases seven to 10 days earlier than CDC's U.S. Influenza Sentinel Provider Surveillance Network.

Based on the findings, the researchers suggested that platforms like Google Flu Trends could help hospital administrators anticipate flu outbreaks and make appropriate staffing and capacity planning decisions.

Study finds Twitter helped track cholera in Haiti
Meanwhile, a recent study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that using Twitter could help researchers track cholera outbreaks in Haiti quicker than traditional surveillance methods.

Cholera broke out in Haiti in October 2010, several months after a January 2010 earthquake. About 7,000 people died from the disease and about 500,000 people contracted it.

For the study, researchers from Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School searched for Twitter posts that included the word "cholera." They also examined reports from a Children's Hospital Boston's HealthMap project, which uses news reports, blogs, and other online content to monitor disease trends.

They found that the informal data from Twitter and HealthMap indicated a cholera outbreak up to two weeks before official government public health reports (Blue, "Healthland," Time, 1/11; Fox, National Journal, 1/11 [subscription required]; Hirschfeld, The Guardian, 1/12).

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