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Google creates tool to track flu outbreaks

If you have a fever, headache and runny nose, you might go to Google and type the words “flu symptoms” to see whether you’ve come down with influenza.

Google, the Internet search engine, has created a new tool that will help track illness, a development that could put in place early warning and control measures for flu outbreaks.

The tool developed by Google.org, the company’s philanthropic department, uses search terms that are commonly entered into the Internet to work out possible flu clusters.
“This is an example where Google can use the incredible systems that we have to come up with an interesting, predictive result,” said Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s chief executive.
“Flu trends” is based on the idea that people who feel sick will probably turn to the Internet for information by searching for terms such as muscle aches, thermometer and chest congestion etc.
“One thing we found last year when we validated this model is it tended to predict surveillance data. The data are really, really timely,” said Dr Lyn Finelli, chief of influenza surveillance at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US.
It tracks their ebb and flow, broken down by regions and states that can be notified to a central data control unit as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US.
“They (model) were able to tell us on a day-to-day basis the relative direction of flu activity for a given area. They were about a week ahead of us. They could be used… as early warning signal for flu activity,” Finelli, was quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Wenesday.
According to the British daily, early tests suggest that the service may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are normally reported by the CDC. The company said it will keep user information confidential.

“What’s exciting about Flu Trends is that it lets anybody — epidemiologists, health officials, moms with sick children — learn about the current flu activity level in their own state based on data that’s coming in this week,” said Jeremy Ginsberg, the lead engineer who developed the site.

The tool, which launched Tuesday, operates on the idea that there’s likely to be a flu outbreak in states where flu-related search terms are currently popular.

“We really are excited about the future of using different technologies, including technology like this, in trying to figure out if there’s better ways to do surveillance for outbreaks of influenza or any other diseases in the United States,” he said. “In theory at least, this idea can be used for any disease and any health problem.”

Researchers found a tight correlation between the relative popularity of flu-related search terms and CDC’s surveillance data, Ginsberg said.

“Sacrificing accuracy may not necessarily carry a big penalty if you’re able to predict increasing flu incidence as well as the other systems, and do it more rapidly,” he said.

Still, there are limitations, Bresee said. The tool may miss cases of influenza spreading among elderly people, because they are less likely to use the Internet than younger people, Stafford said. He also noted that many people who search for flu-related terms have viral infections that are not actually influenza.

Google has also taken into account that people sometimes look for flu-related terms in response to certain news headlines and do not actually have the flu, Ginsberg said. The tool looks for terms that, for example, reflect searches by a person who has chest congestion or wants to buy a thermometer, he said.

Flu Trends may also help doctors make diagnoses, Ginsberg said.

“I would be very hesitant to diagnose influenza at this point in the year, but if the tool tells me influenza in California is really increasing dramatically, I might be more likely or willing to diagnose,” Stafford said.

Influenza is responsible for more than 500,000 deaths worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Flu Trends cannot be used to identify individual users, the company statement said. The search engine relies on aggregated counts, made anonymous, of how often certain search terms occur each week. But every computer connected to the Internet has its own internet protocol address, or IP address, which reveals its location to Google.

Software engineers and public health experts at Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, collaborated on the project, Ginsberg said. The search engine giant turned 10 years old this year.

The overall flu activity in the U.S. is low, although a few states — such as Hawaii, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Delaware and Maine — have “moderate” activity, according to Google’s map, based on data current through Monday.

“There’s no question that testing for virus in blood is the only way to get the most information, but having this sort of information earlier does make sense,” Stafford said.

Go Here To see the updated Flu symptoms in Google trends

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November 20, 2008 - Posted by | News, Technology | , , , , , ,

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