Can social media curb the spread of disease?

MONITORING social media websites like Twitter could help health officials and providers identify severe medical outbreaks in real-time, according to a San Diego State University study published last month in theĀ Journal of Medical Internet Research.

This would allow health officials to direct vital resources more efficiently and curb the spread of disease.

For the study, lead researcher and San Diego State University geography professor Ming-Hsiang Tsou and his team used a program to monitor tweets that originated within a 17-mile radius of 11 cities. The program recorded details of tweets containing the words "flu" or "influenza," including:

  • Origin
  • Username
  • Whether the tweet was an original or a retweet and
  • Any links to websites in the tweet.

Researchers then compared their findings with regional data based on the CDC's definition of influenza-like illness.

The program recorded data on 161,821 tweets that included the word "flu" and 6,174 tweets that included the word "influenza" between June 2012 and the beginning of December 2012.

According to the study, nine of the 11 cities exhibited a statistically significant correlation between an increase in the number of tweets mentioning the keywords and regional outbreak reports.

In five of the cities -- Denver, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, San Diego and Seattle -- the algorithm noted the outbreaks sooner than regional reports.

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