The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) is using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to track outbreaks of the norovirus, and target resources accordingly.
In 2013, the FSA began analysing Google searches to localise increased usage of the terms most commonly used in searches by those infected. However, Dr Sian Thomas of the FSA claims that social media is a better source of data, adding:
‘It’s more about the immediacy… what’s happening in peoples’ lives right now… there’s a really good correlation between the number of mentions on Twitter of ‘sick’ and a range of search terms, with incidents of illness as defined by laboratory reports’.
She continued that:
‘Our current estimate is that between 70-80% of the time, we are able to accurately predict an increase the next week’.
By noting the incidences of words like ‘sick’ and ‘vomiting’, and cross referencing with terms which may indicate that illness is not due to a virus, such as ‘hungover’ or ‘anxious’, the FSA is able to localise outbreaks, and roll out interventions where they are most likely to succeed.
Immunisation advocates using social media to produce epidemiological maps in a similar fashion may also wish to emphasise to the general public that when it comes to efficiently targeting resources, sharing is caring.