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Twitter Can Help Track Outbreaks of Disease

Next time you have a cold or feel the first malarial chill hit your bones, consider doing the world a favor and tweeting those symptoms out

Flu season is in full swing, as coughing co-workers, foreboding media coverage and lines for vaccinations show. Social media, too, is turning into a font of warning signs. Those tweets from friends and strangers complaining of headaches and runny noses? To scientists, they’re all data points. Twitter, health officials say, is quickly turning into a promising means of tracking the spread of flu and other ailments.

In a new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers sampled 24 million tweets from 10 million unique users and were able to pinpoint the location of about 15 percent of the tweets. For those geo-tagged tweets, the researchers could capture information at the state level (and sometimes with every greater specificity) for words such as “fever,” “flu” and “coughing.”

“The first step is to look for posts about symptoms tied to actual location indicators and start to plot points on a map,” the lead researcher said in a statement. “You could also look to see if people are talking about actual diagnoses versus self-reported symptoms, such as ‘The doctor says I have the flu.’”

Twitter’s greatest advantage is its speed. If people begin complaining of symptoms in Miami, for example, public health officials could then react accordingly and put out a warning.

Social media and technology has successfully been put to this task before . When the Haiti earthquake struck in 2010, for example, a group of Swedish researchers used 1.9 million anonymous cell phone records to track fleeing citizens in order to best prepare for their arrival at refugee camps. Grist writes:

When cholera struck in October, within 12 hours of receiving data, their system began providing an analysis of how people responded to the disease. Travelers fleeing the infected areas could bring cholera with them, for example, so their report alerted aid agencies where to be on the lookout for new outbreaks.

Some startups have seized upon this idea for Twitter. An app called MappyHealth uses Twitter to track diseases on a global scale, from anthrax to dengue fever to the common cold. Healthcare IT News reports:

First, the group requests the tweets they’re interested in. “Prior to the contest, they gave us a list of key words, but we’ve filtered it down and added our own.” Some of these key terms include a variety of illnesses, such as influenza and malaria.

Once they’re connected to the servers, the health tweets start streaming in, often millions within an hour, Silverberg says. “Right when we receive , we do some quick analysis, look to see what condition they’re talking about. We apply those qualifier terms,” which Silverberg says are things like “I have,” or “death,” or “I’m going to go see a doctor.”

“When the tweet gets to us,” he adds, “We apply those algorithms to make fields in the data base, and they all go into a huge database where we currently have about 70 million tweets that we can look at.”

Extrapolating out, social media could help officials around the world prepare for and better treat disease outbreaks, as well as better understand how outbreaks spread in an increasingly globalized world. So next time you have a cold or feel the first malarial chill hit your bones, consider doing the world a favor and tweeting those symptoms out.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Brain-Eating Crows May Help Spread Prion Diseases
U.S. and Europe Are Hotspots for Deadly Emerging Diseases 

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