Health Blog

Sniffing, Sneezing, Coughing, Aching and Googling

November 21, 2008

Google’s cleverness seems to know no limits.

Evidence of this was last month’s “Goggles” add-on for Gmail that forces the intoxicated emailer to answer five math questions correctly–in less than one minute–before they can send a possibly embarrassing note into cyberspace. In essence, Google could save your reputation.

Last week, Google announced a new tool that may save your life.

Google found a close relationship between the number of people who type flu-related terms into its popular search engine and the number that actually suffer from the illness. Five to twenty percent of the U.S. population suffers from the flu in any given year and roughly 36,000 people die from its complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Taking advantage of this correlation, Google’s new “Flu Trends”, developed with the help of the CDC, forecasts regional flu outbreaks. Words representing symptoms or conditions related to the flu, like “thermometer” or “chest congestion”, are tracked and plugged into a formula that produces a trend line.

“The CDC is always interested in new approaches to doing surveillance,” says Lyn Finelli, head of the influenza surveillance team at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta.  “Especially those that are automated or electronic so they are not very resource intensive.”

Last year, the new approach closely predicted outbreaks a week or two faster than methods used by the CDC.

“The lag time of people getting sick enough to go to the doctor, and then getting tested, and then test results being developed, takes about a week. So, if Google searches are almost immediate at onset of symptoms, then it is about a week faster,” explains Finelli.

Google’s website analyzes search trends on a daily basis by region, producing weekly estimates available to viewers via interactive graphs and maps. Meanwhile, Finelli and others at the CDC continuously compare Google’s numbers to their more precise, traditionally-gathered data throughout the flu season. Given the inherent variability in human behavior, and Internet searches over time, there is a chance it may not work as well as it did last year.  A story in the newspaper or on the evening news, for example, may lead to a peak in queries or even introduce new search terms.

The site provides other useful flu facts, including recent articles and a place to enter a zip code for locations of nearby vaccine clinics. As Finelli notes, Flu Trends allows the CDC to disperse information to an audience that may not access their website directly.

There may be many other potential applications of this innovation, from tracking bed bug infestations to the avian flu.

“Google’s intent was to develop a prototype for an infectious disease condition and then use that knowledge that they gained in the prototype to develop surveillance search term queries for other conditions,” says Finelli.

Also on Scienceline:

Why is there no vaccine for HIV?

The flu: a vicious killer.

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About the Author

Lynne Peeples is a freelance journalist focusing on health and the environment. She graduated from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, where she was the editor-in-chief of Scienceline. She has also written for Scientific American online, Audubon Magazine, The Harvard Gazette and Amstat News. Before NYU, Lynne worked at Harvard University crunching numbers for HIV clinical trials and environmental health studies, while teaching an introductory biostatistics course. She also holds an M.S. in Biostatistics from Harvard and a B.A. in Mathematics from St. Olaf College. Her resume and clips can be found at: http://www.lynnepeeples.com

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