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Tweeting the Flu

Tweeting the Flu

A map the Johns Hopkins' team made using their Twitter method shows that the U.S. experienced a high flu rate the first week of January 2013, which the team says tracks well with CDC data. (Image by Michael Paul/Johns Hopkins University)

Host: Rebecca Williams
Show date: 01/31/2013

Summary:

Flu season started early and came in swinging. Health officials say itís been a moderate to severe flu season for most of the country.

Curtis Allen is a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"In Michigan, itís still at a high level of activity. Hopefully youíll see less and less as we go on. But influenza is notoriously unpredictable and there could also be another peak," Allen says.

He says a strain of influenza virus called H3N2 has been circulating this year.

"The H3N2 strain tends to lead to more severe seasons and a greater number of illnesses and hospitalizations and deaths among those who are 65 or older and those who have underlying health conditions."

Allen says the CDC still recommends getting a flu shot this season if you havenít yet.

Ugh... I feel terrible today.

It seems like every day somebodyís complaining about being sick on Facebook or Twitter.

It turns out that tweeting that youíre sick with the flu can be actually be useful for science.

Mark Dredze is an assistant research professor in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University.  Heís designed a method of tracking flu cases using Twitter.

I asked him how he can tell whoís really sick with the flu and whoís just talking about some celebrity getting the flu.

"In order to figure out if someone's really sick, you need to go beyond just looking at what words they happen to use, like 'flu' or 'sick' and use a deeper level analysis of what they're saying to figure out if they're saying 'I am sick' or 'I'm worried about getting sick' or 'I hope I don't get sick.' And what we've done here is we've developed some new algorithms that can do exactly that. They go beyond just the shallow words and try and get the real meaning of what the person's trying to say."

He says Twitter is a great resource for tracking illness because it's publicly available.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do a very good job of putting together what the flu rate is in the United States, but they do it on a fairly broad level and it takes them a while to do that. It takes about two weeks for the CDC to put out today's flu rate. So, that's a little bit slow for making critical decisions about how to respond to flu epidemics, much like we're seeing this year. It would be much more valuable if we could have up to the day or up to the minute estimates of what the flu rate is, so we could respond much more quickly as epidemics arise, with the critical pieces of information."

I asked him how closely his Twitter method tracks with the CDC's data.

"So we looked at this for the current flu season, and it's still early because we're in the middle of that flu season, but it seems our new method tracks much more closely with CDC data than previous methods for doing things with Twitter."

But there arenít a lot of elderly people or really young kids tweeting Ė and Dredze acknowledges that's a limitation of tracking diseases with tweets.

"The demographics of Twitter are really key here. Certainly if we were interested in studying the elderly population, Twitter would be a very bad resource. Beyond that, Twitter is actually a very good resource for studying the population, at least in the United States, as it's really become an incredibly popular tool. Right now, Twitter has about a half a billion tweets a day, and while many of those are from outside the United States, the U.S. makes up a significant percentage of that data. So, we really have a lot of people in the United States using this, which makes it great. Tracking the flu is really just the tip of the iceberg here. There's a lot more data here, and a lot more interesting applications, and I think we're going to start to see those emerge in the next couple of years."

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