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Tracking the H1N1 Virus

24th August 2009 by Carol Posted in Uncategorized

Among the wonders of the internet is Google’s website devoted to tracking the outbreak of influenza. One of the most interesting aspect of this site is how it gets its information. Site creators have noticed a statistically significant correlation between certain kinds of search queries in relation to the Center for Disease Control (in the U.S., other equivalent organizations in other countries) statistics for various regions. In other words, when the flu is around locally, we alter our behavior online. We begin searching for flu-related information online. The increase in flu-related searches mirrors the increase of flu diagnoses.

While it is necessary for Google to continually ascertain that the correlation remains significant over time, the result is that information on flu outbreaks based on this method is actually more up to date than the compilations of medical information from the CDC. The website includes a video that demonstrates the outbreak of flu as determined by medical reports and the increases and decreases of flu-related searches; this video demonstrates the time lag between changes in diagnoses and changes in search patterns. Naturally, it takes some time to collate data collected from all over, which is what the CDC has to do. In contrast, search statistics are relatively easy to collect and analyze. This means that we have just about the best early warning system we can have given the realities of medical data collection and analysis.

Currently, the Google flu website covers the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, where they have been able to verify their data with medical data. They have data on Mexico which is provisional at this point because the correlations with medical data have not been verified. The southern hemisphere countries experience winter during the northern hemisphere summer; looking at their current flu season can give residents of the northern hemisphere an idea of what the outbreak may look like in January or February.

One of the factors in the spread of the 1918 flu virus was World War I: the bringing together of people from many different places who then took the virus back home with them. The fact that people travel a lot around the world is a risk factor for spreading this pandemic, potential flu vaccines notwithstanding. It is hoped that with the data from the Google flu website, people can make choices about avoiding flu hotspots and therefore preventing more outbreaks of this influenza.

Swine Flu Prevention

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One Response to “Tracking the H1N1 Virus”

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