I spent the weekend with two boys and myself having the flu. Young feverish brows resisted chewable and other forms of Tylenol, but finally acquiesced. My thoughts naturally turned to the demography of illness, that is, epidemiology. I was wondering how many people were sharing our, what medical researchers call “Influenza Like Illness”, because without a lab tested viral culture one doesn’t really know.
A commonsense approach to tracking the flu was developed by Google in the form of Google flu trends. The researchers at Google found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate current flu activity around the world in near real-time.
I found that while flu activity is moderate around Los Angeles and the rest of the United States. Flu activity is intense in Sweden and high in Norway as well as my birthplace of Hungary. So, at least I didn’t feel that we were the only ones suffering, but also felt good that there wasn’t an uncontrolled worldwide pandemic of which the Flu Trends would serve as an early warning device. Actually, flu query information on Google in the U.S. had a two week lead on the information that was available to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which relies on reports of lab specimens positive for influenza collected by local health departments.
In this sped up world, there is even an point of view that searches on Google are too slow as people actually share their flu symptoms much more quickly on Twitter according to Mark Dredze of Johns Hopkins. The above chart shows an extremely high correlation found between Twitter flu communications and the CDC’s positive influenza sample reports. My guess is that the correlation would have been higher if a chip testing the influenza virus directly real-time linked to the CDC would have been available. The ability to have a two week lead to discern the rise of an epidemic may be eclipsed by the utility of seeing two to three weeks ahead when the epidemic is waning and public expressions of panic may be aided to subside.
There is a certain comfort in knowing that while one is recovering, most of the “herd” remains and will probably remain healthy. I know, a flu shot may have helped. Chances are that a flu shot wouldn’t have made a difference unless the flu strain could be foreseen, but that technology hasn’t developed yet.
Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography, Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work, Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position (I was recently notified that with 40,000 visitors this year the 15 year old study of the LA Jewish populationwas third most downloaded study from Berman Jewish Policy Archives in 2011) and is immediate past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: firstname.lastname@example.org To follow Pini on Twitter: Follow @pinih