In addition to supporting the good work of others, we also aspire to identify areas where gaps exist in solutions to the threats we work on and create projects ourselves. Such is the case with Flu Near You. Developed in partnership with HealthMap and the American Public Health Association, Flu Near You is an effort to track the spread of flu on a national level, potentially unlocking hidden secrets about this viral mystery.
As a medical epidemiologist at Google.org, I had the pleasure of working with a team of Google engineers to answer a very specific question: “Can we find flu faster?” With Google Flu Trends, the engineers built a tool that finds flu up to two weeks earlier than the traditional sentinel laboratory-based system used in public health today. Researchers have demonstrated similar success looking at Yahoo search terms related to flu. While this two weeks advanced warning surprised some, we suspected that people would search the Internet for information about their symptoms before visiting a health care provider. This seems to be the case.
Many in public health are trying to explore the use of social networks – what you write on your “wall”, what you SMS each day – anything that might provide valuable information for even earlier warning of flu. Seems to me we may have been too timid to try what really matters: simply asking people. Theoretically, the earliest sign of spread in a community could come from tracking the flu via self-reporting of symptoms.
Evidence suggests self-reported flu surveillance indeed works. Craig Dalton and colleagues, for example, successfully implemented FluTracking in 2004 with partners in Australia. Now tracking 10,000 people online every week, they have demonstrated vaccine efficacy and are providing guidance on addressing pockets of need in communities with high rates of self-reported illness. More importantly, they have retained – indeed, even grown – participation in the program through the simplicity of the system. Ten countries in Europe currently collaborate on Influenzanet, with thousands of online volunteers responding to a similar weekly survey via email.
Inspired by these early pioneers, we have engaged the APHA as the leading public health organization in the U.S. to build a pool of voluntary ‘sentinels’ of flu in the United States. We are asking volunteers to complete a short survey that takes 5-10 seconds once a week. Your shared data is anonymous and contributes to the Flu Near You platform, built by HealthMap.
The openly available data set can help everyone better understand flu, including policy makers, healthcare providers, researchers, educators and the public. Reporting no symptoms of flu may prove as useful as reporting symptoms—hence the weekly survey.
With APHA’s help, we are putting the public into pubic health surveillance in a direct, active way. We have asked APHA members to reach out through their social networks, engage with community partners, schools and workplaces, and share among their family and friends. We hope everyone will explore Flu Near You.