Can infodemiology help manage a Swine Flu pandemic?

September 2nd, 2009

The Washington Post reports that Flu Trackers Encourage Patients to Blog About It. There was quite a bit of discussion about this back in April with the first wave of H1N1 (swine flu) concerns (e.g., Google flu trends: Web searches as sensors). The article mentions Google Flu Trends and HealthMap, but I was surprised with some of the new ideas people are exploring that the article mentions. Plus, I learned a catchy new term for this: infodemiology.

One idea is to further exploit mobile phone technology.

Boston-based HealthMap’s automated system sends out an hourly Web “crawler” that hunts for flu information in seven languages. Its creators on Tuesday launched a cellphone application called “Outbreaks Near Me” that can alert users to illnesses nearby. “If you move into a zone where there’s an outbreak, your phone would actually alert you,” said John Brownstein, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where HealthMap is based. The application also allows users to send back to HealthMap their own flu alerts.

And another is to recruit a population sample willing to serve as active sensors by reporting their own status and experiences.

Locally, Maryland has launched a “flu watcher” program in which volunteers report their health conditions weekly via the Internet. Project officials say the state is the first in the country to have such a system: the Maryland Resident Influenza Tracking Survey.

“We get people to sign up online and give us their e-mail address,” said Rene Najera, an epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “They give us their county of residence, their month and year of birth. We don’t get too personal with them. We just want some basic demographics. Every week . . . we send them a survey . . . ‘Did you have any fever? Did you have any cough? Did you have any sore throat in the week previous?’ ” he said. If the answer is yes, more detailed questions are asked. So far, 740 people across the state have signed up.

And the Maryland system is not the only one — see the Australian Flutracking system for another, which gets responses from about 6,000 people.

Researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed a system called FluLog that will use Bluetooth to locate people who had been in proximity to someone who has become infected.

It’s a high-tech version of a process called “contact tracing,” said Mehul Motani of the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Engineering. Typically, he said “when you have a suspected case, you interview the suspected case, and you ask them: ‘Where have you been? . . . Who have you been in sustained contact with?’ ” The idea is to locate others who might get sick.

Many of these systems have serious privacy issue, of course. But the examples discussed in this article (only some of which are mentioned here) are all voluntary.

It would be great if some of these systems could expose data as RDF making it available as part of the web of linked data.