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We know who's been sick: Facebook, Twitter map out influenza outbreak

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 28th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

If you're one of the types of people who report their every single movement on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, you may have recently posted a health update such as this: "I finally got the flu." "I'm out sick." "Darn this head cold!" In doing so, you may have played a part in a new trend, "bio-surveillance," which may prove helpful in mapping flu epidemics.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The future of predicting flu outbreaks as well as managing the treatment of epidemics may soon be through social media such as Twitter. A small start up, called Sickweather declared the beginning of flu season before the Centers for Disease Control.

The Baltimore-based firm claims that members of the public that tweet and post to Facebook about their illness allowed them to declare the new influenza outbreak had hit the U.S. on October 18th.

The Centers for Disease Control somewhat belatedly warned that the outbreak was getting off to its earliest start on December 3rd. This prediction was still six weeks after Sickweather.

Founder Graham Dodge found that social media reports of the flue spiked 77 percent between August and October.

And while an increase in the number of those out sick is normal during that time period, the numbers found by Sickweather were 30 percent up from the previous year.

An independent technology firm declares the beginning of the dreaded flu season is still probably years away. Sickweather itself almost jokingly mentioned their discovery with the tweet, "Oh, hello #flu, you're a little early this year: sick.io/ksxfm."

Technology watchers though, have called the development interesting as social media sickness mentions are one of the few signals that can be tracked in real time as doctors attempt to understand how a sickness moves.

Search engine giant Google uses its Google Flu Trends app -- but does not make specific announcements about the flu season.

Sickweather has joined the growing trend in using social media to track public health trends.

Accenture Federal Services announced in November it had received a $3 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security to create a so-called "bio-surveillance" system.

The system will allow the Office of Health Affairs to monitor and respond to national health emergencies through Internet social media, enabling the OHA to collect and analyze social media platforms for information to "detect and respond to potential threats to national health security."

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