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Is Google Flu Trends the key to flu prevention in the future?
Seasonal flu trends continue to be a major public health concern every year. Early detection of the spread of the disease is the key to reducing seasonal, as well as pandemic influenza. One of the ways that early detection can be improved is by monitoring and observing remedy-seeking behaviour on online search engines. Millions of users submit queries on the subject around the world each day. A new method is presented by Google to monitor the numbers of search queries to track flu trends in a population. It was found that the frequency of queries is highly correlated to the amount of physician visits where patients exhibit influenza-like symptoms. Thus, it is easy to estimate the level of influenza activity accurately in different regions of the U.S.
Google Flu Trends can estimate the national flu-like activity rate in real time by monitoring certain search queries. They found a correlation between the number of people making searches on flu-related subjects and those who actually exhibit flu symptoms. Obviously not every person that types in “flu” into a search engine is actually ill, but there is definitely a pattern when all the flu-related queries are added up. They compared the query counts with other traditional flu surveillance systems and found that the numbers match closely. By counting the frequency of these queries, it can be estimated to what degree the flu virus is circulating in various regions and countries in the world.
Researchers claim that Google Flu Trends is a valuable tool, particularly since it is able to analyze and count the search queries almost instantaneously, while the traditional surveillance systems that monitor flu trends can take days or sometimes weeks to do the same. However, a study has demonstrated that the Google Flu Trends data must be interpreted carefully, because other surveillance systems reflect influenza activity more accurately. Jamie Yood, a spokesman for Google said that the “Flu Trend” is certainly not a replacement for the traditional surveillance systems. Google can compare its U.S. search queries in the U.S. with the flu rates that are measured by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC). The CDC’s national surveillance program takes weekly statistics from 3,000 health clinics across the country. These clinics count the number of patients with flu-like symptoms. However, it could take almost two weeks for these numbers to be compiled, Yood says, whereas Google Flu Trends is updated on a daily basis. So, this tool can bridge the two-week lag from the CDC, which could give officials that crucial extra time to properly respond to a potential epidemic.
For epidemiologists, this is also a very exciting development, since the early detection of a disease is what is required to reduce the amount of people affected. If a new type of influenza virus were to appear, a pandemic could follow, potentially causing millions of deaths, as happened in 1918. Google’s real-time influenza estimates could enable health professionals and public health officials to react better to seasonal pandemics and epidemics. This was the conclusion of a study presented at the American Thoracic Society meeting. Researchers discovered that Google Flu Trends is great at pointing out in which areas the population is experiencing flu-like symptoms.
So the mega-corporation Google strikes again with this great new tool. What will they come up with next?!
The information supplied in this article is not to be considered as medical advice and is for educational purposes only.
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