How Internet surveillance predicts disease outbreak before WHO

Kurzweil News: “Have you ever Googled for an online diagnosis before visiting a doctor? If so, you may have helped provide early warning of an infectious disease epidemic.
In a new study published in Lancet Infectious Diseases, Internet-based surveillance has been found to detect infectious diseases such as Dengue Fever and Influenza up to two weeks earlier than traditional surveillance methods, according to Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research fellow and senior author of the paper Wenbiao Hu.
Hu, based at the Institute for Health and Biomedical Innovation, said there was often a lag time of two weeks before traditional surveillance methods could detect an emerging infectious disease.
“This is because traditional surveillance relies on the patient recognizing the symptoms and seeking treatment before diagnosis, along with the time taken for health professionals to alert authorities through their health networks. In contrast, digital surveillance can provide real-time detection of epidemics.”
Hu said the study used search engine algorithms such as Google Trends and Google Insights. It found that detecting the 2005–06 avian influenza outbreak “Bird Flu” would have been possible between one and two weeks earlier than official surveillance reports.
“In another example, a digital data collection network was found to be able to detect the SARS outbreak more than two months before the first publications by the World Health Organization (WHO),” Hu said.
According to this week’s CDC FluView report published Jan. 17, 2014, influenza activity in the United States remains high overall, with 3,745 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations reported since October 1, 2013 (credit: CDC)
“Early detection means early warning and that can help reduce or contain an epidemic, as well alert public health authorities to ensure risk management strategies such as the provision of adequate medication are implemented.”
Hu said the study found that social media including Twitter and Facebook and microblogs could also be effective in detecting disease outbreaks. “The next step would be to combine the approaches currently available such as social media, aggregator websites, and search engines, along with other factors such as climate and temperature, and develop a real-time infectious disease predictor.”
“The international nature of emerging infectious diseases combined with the globalization of travel and trade, have increased the interconnectedness of all countries and that means detecting, monitoring and controlling these diseases is a global concern.”
The other authors of the paper were Gabriel Milinovich (first author), Gail Williams and Archie Clements from the University of Queensland School of Population, Health and State.
Another powerful tool is Supramap, a web application that synthesizes large, diverse datasets so that researchers can better understand the spread of infectious diseases across hosts and geography by integrating genetic, evolutionary, geospatial, and temporal data. It is now open-source — create your own maps here.
Associate Professor Daniel Janies, Ph.D., an expert in computational genomics at the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University (OSU), worked with software engineers at the Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) to allow researchers and public safety officials to develop other front-end applications that draw on the logic and computing resources of Supramap.
It was originally developed in 2007 to track the spread and evolution of pandemic (H1N1) and avian influenza (H5N1).
“Using SUPRAMAP, we initially developed maps that illustrated the spread of drug-resistant influenza and host shifts in H1N1 and H5N1 influenza and in coronaviruses, such as SARS,” said Janies. “SUPRAMAP allows the user to track strains carrying key mutations in a geospatial browser such as Google Earth. Our software allows public health scientists to update and view maps on the evolution and spread of pathogens.”
Grant funding through the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Office supports this Innovation Group on Global Infectious Disease Research project. Support for the computational requirements of the project comes from  the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and OSC. Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, Department of Biomedical Informatics and offices of Academic Affairs and Research provide additional support.”
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