As influenza season peaks in the United States, one researcher is working to bring the public into tracking the epidemic. Using new technology, he may be able to provide public health officials with useful information more quickly than the usual methods. And he is applying the new tools to study disease outbreaks around the world.
Boston Children’s Hospital epidemiologist John Brownstein is literally pinning down where the flu outbreak is occurring. “All the pins represent the people who are reporting to the system,” he said.
The sea of pins on his virtual U.S. map represents the nationwide network of volunteers for his Web site, Flu Near You. “The idea is, getting people with a small amount of time each week to tell us how they’re feeling,” he said.
A short weekly email survey asks each person about his or her health. In just a few months, Flu Near You has recruited 40,000 volunteers and keeps growing.
“So we say, putting the public back in public health,” said Brownstein.
Hospitals and doctors’ offices were seeing rising numbers of flu cases in late December, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. But Brownstein says he is ahead of the others in terms of information.
“And Flu Near You is showing that we’ve already peaked and are heading down. And in fact the latest numbers that are coming out from the CDC actually agree that this has already come down,” he said.
Brownstein plans to take the system global and expand it to other diseases.
He currently runs another Web site, HealthMap, that for seven years has tracked outbreaks worldwide.
He says as a graduate student he grew weary of begging health ministers for information. “And so we had this idea, well, what if we mined the Web looking for clues about outbreaks via news, social media, blogs, chat rooms, discussion forums,” he said.
In Haiti’s deadly 2010 cholera outbreak, HealthMap’s automated Web searches provided early information on the trajectory of the disease.
Today, he is following an ebola outbreak in Uganda. “We think there’s opportunities to really track emerging infectious diseases with these tools,” he said.