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Social Media for Real-Time Tracking of Disease

Sikha Singh, MHS '05

Sikha Singh Recently CNN.com featured an article titled "Using Social Media for Disease Surveillance," providing examples of real-life breakouts that demonstrate how the Internet has fundamentally changed global health surveillance. Epidemic intelligence, writes author John Brownstein, flows not only through government hierarchies but also through informal channels, ranging from press reports to blogs to chat rooms to analyses of Web searches.

Social media outlets promote real-time reporting, accessible almost anywhere to users with Internet-capable devices. Twitter users, for example, provide firsthand information that has the potential to provide a wealth of information to groups that monitor trends in social media activity. The downside of self-reporting, however, is that false information may generate widespread misperceptions.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University have adapted a model that can rapidly comb millions of public Twitter messages to identify up-to-the-minute trends. Initial studies have revealed patterns in self-medication for illnesses that don’t typically require a doctor’s visit. For example, Twitter users reported using Tylenol or Advil for pain relief and Claritin or Zyrtec for allergies.

Google Flu Trends, a website that maps flu activity around the world, based on data from Google searches, is another demonstration of how information expressed in Web searches enables extraction of social and health trends. Additionally, the Web resource called HealthMap (www.healthmap.org) offers real-time, contextualized information on health events, both local and distant.

It is undeniable that social media is an emerging tool that plays an increasing role in alerting the public to what is happening in the world. Consider the vast reach of social media: If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s fourth largest, behind only China, India and the United States. What are the public health surveillance and disease tracking implications of self-reporting through social media? Will health agencies increase their reliance on ubiquitous social media outlets for disseminating vital health information?

I wonder how Facebook feels about the potential for capturing, synthesizing and analyzing the information generated from the chatter of its over 800 million active users. Can social media services capitalize on their widespread reach to promote public health campaigns? Will self-reporting in the form of tweets and status updates ever truly benefit epidemiological investigations by offering accurate and reliable data?

Maybe the masterminds (ahem, Mr. Zuckerberg) behind some of the most popular social media services can answer these questions. Calls for comment to Facebook headquarters were not returned (nor made).

Sikha Singh is a Senior Specialist with the Laboratory Response Network.

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