Google tool tracks the flu in SA

29 June 2010

Influenza affects millions and kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, but early detection can help health officials respond quickly and save lives. Now, internet giant Google has joined the fight with the South Africa launch of Flu Trends, a tool for gauging the level of flu activity in a country in near real-time.

“A few years ago, a small team of Google engineers began to think about what patterns in aggregated Google search queries might tell us about the world around us,” Google Flu Trends project manager Corrie Conrad said in the company’s Africa blog this week.

“They wondered whether these patterns could tell us, for instance, about the rise and fall in flu activity over time.”

Real-time activity monitor

Google Flu Trends, launched in the US in November 2008, proved to be a powerful tool for accurately estimating the level of flu activity in a country in near real-time.

The tool was expanded to include much of Europe ahead of the winter flu season last year, while this year they are launching it in eight additional countries in the southern hemisphere, where winter has now set in.

“Being able to track increases in flu activity has proved to be a valuable resource to public health officials, doctors, health ministries, and regular people, and can help us all respond more quickly to flu outbreaks,” said Conrad.

South Africa is the first African country to be added to the tool, which compares Google’s data with data provided in the public domain through the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a division of the National Health Laboratory Service.

“Many health agencies already survey doctors and patients to track the flu, so you might ask, why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? Traditional flu surveillance is very important, but most health agencies focus on a single country or region and only update their estimates once per week, often with a lag-time of weeks,” said Conrad.

Daily updates

Google Flu Trends is currently available for a number of countries around the world and is updated every day, providing a complement to these existing systems.

For epidemiologists, this is an exciting development, because early detection of a disease outbreak can reduce the number of people affected. If a new strain of influenza virus emerges under certain conditions, a pandemic could ensue with the potential to cause millions of deaths – as happened, for example, in 1918.

“Our up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and pandemics,” said Conrad.

“Google Flu Trends is one example of how people’s searches can be a reflection of what’s happening in a country, and can provide a key to responding to threats to public health.”

SAinfo reporter

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