Facebook and tissue sales used to predict virus outbreaks

Thursday, 27 July, 2017

Facebook and tissue sales used to predict virus outbreaks

The New Zealand Ministry of Health is using social media to try and predict outbreaks of infectious viruses.

This new project is aiming to establish whether or not tracking trends on social media could help to predict breakouts and improve the response to health epidemics.

“We’re in the midst of the cold and flu season, so trying to predict outbreaks of infectious bugs is top of mind,” said Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

“The project uses alternative sources of information to detect trends that indicate the spread of infectious diseases, including social media and a range of historic and current data sets.

“People often talk about being unwell on social media, so trends can be detected on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Picking up on trends could help us to put the appropriate measures in place earlier to prevent disease spread and ensure sufficient stocks of medicines are available.”

The Ministry is also harnessing a wide range of data for the project, such as anonymised information about school absenteeism, employee sick leave, pharmacy sales of over-the-counter medicines, Healthline calls and tissue sales.

“Claims that luxury soft tissue sales surge at the start of influenza outbreaks are also being analysed to see whether not just the sale volumes but the types of products can act as an early epidemic warning,” said Coleman.

“This project builds on our existing monitoring programs, which work well to identify trends in communicable diseases using traditional methods such as surveillance of lab results and data from general practices.”

There is currently an online survey that asks people whether they have ever posted information on social media about their own or their family’s illnesses.

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Nickilford

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