Twitter can help predict flu outbreaks

By Laura Mize • Published: February 28th, 2014
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Are you that person who shares every detail of your life on social media?

If you horrified Twitter with way too much information on your most recent bout with the flu … your oversharing may actually have aided public health efforts.

A recently published study analyzed Twitter messages, called tweets, containing the word “flu” or “influenza” and found they are a good indicator of which U.S. cities have lots of flu cases. For some cities, tweets about flu actually were predictive of outbreaks before they happened.

Researchers from two California universities and the San Diego health agency looked at tweets originating from 11 cities and their surrounding areas. They collected tweets, plus weekly local health department data on patients with flu-like symptoms, for several months. Then, using statistical analysis methods, they found a correlation between the flu tweets and the number of patients who seemed to have the flu in each city. Some cities showed stronger correlations than others, according to the group’s article published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, but the trend was evident, nonetheless.

Fascinating stuff, but what does it all mean? For one, public health workers can better respond to an outbreak of disease if they suspect it’s coming. Secondly, if Twitter can be used to predict widespread bouts of flu, it also may help forecast eruptions of other, more serious diseases. The scientists said social media also helps researchers learn about the general public’s knowledge of and attitudes toward specific health topics.

Researchers are still learning how the Internet, with all the personal information it contains, can help us fight disease. So go ahead and tweet next time you get the flu; just spare us the gory details.