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Google Tracks Your Flu

Posted by Jane Akre
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 10:37 AM EST
Category: On The Road, Major Medical, Protecting Your Family, In The Workplace
Tags: Influenza, Flu, CDC, FDA and Prescription Drugs, Google

Your google search on flu symptoms may be tracked and forwarded to the CDC



IMAGE SOURCE: ©iStockphoto/ woman resting with flu/ author: JJRD


When you talk to your computer’s search engine, it listens. And in the case of Google, it talks.

Google, the search engine, has launched a new tool, “Flu Trends,” that collects search terms generally associated with the flu.

“We’ve discovered that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity,” Google said in a statement.

Google Flu Trends then notifies the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to show where flu activity is heating up, helping federal health experts track the flu epidemic.

People who are sick tend to look up symptoms via a search engine. Estimates are as many as 34 to 40 percent of all visits to the internet are related to health.

Search terms surrounding influenza or the flu might include, fever, muscle aches, cough and flu.

Many of these people might determine they don’t have a garden variety cold and simply follow the general directions for rest, up liquids and take a pain reliever, never seeing a doctor. That makes tracking trends difficult in the real world.

A search engine reports in real time versus the CDC’s surveillance data which usually lags by a few weeks.

Armed with information, the CDC can alert hospitals to be prepared with flu tests and antiviral drugs.  Antibiotics can be stocked for people who get corresponding bacterial infections when they are down with the flu.

For those who feel that surveillance on search engine terms reads a little like Big Brother, Google says it will keep individual data confidential.

“Google Flu Trends can never be used to identify individual users because we rely on anonymized, aggregated counts of how often certain search queries occur each week,” Google says in a statement.

In other words millions of searches will yield trends that are observed and noted.

Google has released Flu Trends through its philanthropic arm. To develop the model, it used hundreds of billions of Google searches from 2003 on. 

Problems with accuracy are a concern. Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University tells ABC News that he does searches for flu all the time, even when he’s not sick. 

“Whether searching for the flu is meaningful or not can only be compared with another gold standard method,” he tells ABC.

Repeatedly washing your hands is still the best flu prevention method.    #

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