Social media, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and location-based services like Foursquare, are forever changing the way epidemiologists discover, track, and study the spread of disease. Instead of waiting for health authorities to investigate an outbreak and not report on results for weeks or even months, victims from all over the world are coming together and using social media to compare symptoms, attempt to determine the origin, and arrive at a diagnosis.
An article in today’s New York Times explores this new trend, discussing how new technology is “democratizing the disease-hunting process, upsetting the old equilibrium by connecting people through channels effectively outside government control.” While there is a downside to online discussion of the spread of disease, including spreading fear and misinformation about causes and cures, many epidemiologists are seeing the new trend of using social media as a positive tool.
Dr. Taha Kass-Hout, Deputy Director for Information Science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees, stating that because “SARS probably can travel at the speed of an airliner from continent to continent in a matter of hours, it just makes perfect sense to adapt the speed and flexibility of social networking to disease surveillance.”
The Pew Internet and Life Project’s The Social Life of Health Information survey released last month (see my previous post) showed that online resources, including advice from peers, serve as a significant source of health information in the U.S. This survey is the first time anyone has reported, in a national consumer survey, how consumers are using the Internet for self-tracking of their health. Health issues such as questions about a specific disease, food recall, and environmental hazard were searched online by 80% of internet users, or about 59% of the U.S. population the survey showed.
People’s communications about health events, whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, or blogs, can provide valuable information to researchers that can be processed using modern tools and extract key elements to help predict disease outbreaks.
However, there are skeptics who argue that the new social media methods only provide the illusion of better disease tracking. Not everyone uses social media, so in reality, how representative can it be? While using social media to predict disease and virus outbreaks, such as the flu, may only have modest results at best, social media can compliment traditional surveillance of disease and serve as an important tool in the case of new and emerging diseases, or in instances where little or no historical data exists.
Interested in tracking or reporting outbreaks? A mobile app called Outbreaks Near Me, which has been downloaded by over 100,000 people, allows users to rely on global positioning to help them avoid infectious hazards, and report new ones from smartphones.