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Can social media help pinpoint where viruses strike?

Agencies using online sources to help track illnesses, outbreaks

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014 12:48 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 16, 2014 10:44 a.m. CDT

As Graham Dodge sees it, the record whooping cough outbreak that swept through McHenry County in fall 2011 might have stopped in Cary – where it started – if people had paid attention to tweets.

Dodge, who co-founded an online disease tracker called Sickweather, said his small startup business detected the outbreak through increased Twitter and Facebook postings nearly two weeks before the McHenry County Department of Health formally announced the outbreak.

The McHenry County incident was Sickweather’s “first successes,” Dodge said. It helped the company refine its computer algorithms that extract and sort social media postings about illnesses from irrelevant chatter, like a teenager experiencing “Bieber fever” for singer Justin Bieber, commonly found on social media.

“We are searching for keywords of illnesses. If somebody is talking about whooping cough, we are able to aggregate that data and quantify it in real time,” Dodge said. “Because we are dealing in real-time information, we are able to identify in real time.”

The live information is why Sickweather was able to beat local health officials to the whooping cough announcement, he said. The company now has a mobile app that notifies users of trending illnesses in their area.

Although McHenry County health officials used social media to educate the public about the whooping cough outbreak, they had to wait for test results before confirming reported cases, said spokesperson Debra Quackenbush.

The department, so far, has used social media to reach the broader McHenry County population but doesn’t have plans yet to replace its current surveillance methods with social media trackers.

“Our current surveillance system ... to reported illnesses and outbreaks is based on established scientific protocols,” Quackenbush said. “There still needs to be the human factor in our response functions, such as clinical identification of a pathogen.”

Other government agencies are beginning to scour social media to track and predict outbreaks and illnesses. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 launched “MappyHealth,” an online application that tracks health concerns using Twitter.

Local health officials requested the tool since studies on the 2009 swine flu pandemic and the cholera outbreak in

Haiti showed that social media data can identify outbreaks quicker than conventional surveillance, federal health officials said at the time.

Sickweather also is trying to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention develop an online platform that uses cloud-storing technology to track and disseminate real-time information on emergencies.

“When people are reacting to illnesses, it’s time consuming. People have to take off work or make impromptu runs to the pharmacist,” Dodge said. “Now, you can be proactive rather than reactive.”

The Chicago Department of Public Health recently tapped into social media to proactively track food poisoning concerns from residents, said spokesperson Brian Richardson. In April 2013, the agency helped launch “Foodborne Chicago,” a web platform that has spurred 175 public health inspections.

The online application uses an algorithm that has flagged nearly 2,600 tweets about food poisoning from Chicago restaurants.

After a staffer sorts and identifies credible tweets, the department sends a Twitter message to a resident asking if they want to file a complaint.

In its infancy, Foodborne Chicago was screening too many irrelevant tweets, including numerous users writing about Michael Jordan’s famous flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals. But the department has since improved its algorithm where it can better identify reliable information, Richardson said.

Since not all Chicago residents are on Twitter, the department plans to use the new online service as an added tool to its current reporting methods, he said.

“Our goal is to find ways to reach people where they are – where they work, live and communicate,” Richardson said. “We are now reaching out to them directly before we even hear their complaint.”

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