Public Health

4 Online Tools for Tracking the Flu

The flu season is in full swing and real-time, Web-based information provides insight into the virus and national trends.

Flu season, which tends to peak in January and February, is in full swing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were 22,048 flu cases from Sept. 30, 2012, through the end of 2012. In contrast, 849 cases were reported during the same time frame in 2011.

“In an immediate sense; we were a little spoiled last year,” Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., told ABC News. “Last year, we had fewer influenza cases than had ever been recorded before.”

Boston declared a public health emergency on Jan. 9. Four citizens there have died from the flu and 700 people have been diagnosed with the virus. In addition, a Pennsylvania hospital set up a separate care area in the parking lot for people with flu symptoms after being inundated with patients.

Here are three online sources for real-time flu information and one social app for virus tracking:

Google Flu Trends uses search data from the site to estimate current flu activity. “We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms,” says the site. Google compared online search query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that the search queries are popular during the flu season. The tool seeks to estimate how much of the flu is circulating in different countries and regions.

Google also provides the data in a text format so that agencies and the public can use the information in other ways.

The CDC Influenza App provides health professionals with the CDC’s latest recommendations and influenza activity updates. Designed for the iPhone and iPad, the app’s features include: updated information on national flu activity; flu vaccination recommendations; and information on laboratory testing for influenza. The CDC also has other apps for health-care professionals including Preventing Chronic Disease and 2011 Guidelines for Field Triage of Injured Patients.

The Flu Near You site allows users to report their flu symptoms and showcases the information on Google Maps, allowing the public to see where participants reported experiencing flu symptoms against a backdrop of national trend information. The site is administered by Healthmap of Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund. U.S. residents can register to complete weekly surveys that provide insight into the flu and may help organizations learn more about the virus. Flu Near You currently has 39,075 participants, with 13,157 having reported symptoms within the last week. The site also features a Flu Vaccine Finder and provides users with customized email disease alerts.

And the list wouldn’t be complete without a social media tool. The Facebook app Help, My Friend Gave Me the Flu helps users find out who among their online friends passed along the sickness. “Nothing will make you feel better like finding somebody to blame,” the app proclaims. Click on “Who Made Me Sick” and the app searches Facebook users’ feeds for words like “coughing” and “sneezing” to help identify who is spreading the virus.

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

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