Under the surveillance systems used by federal health officials, it can take two weeks or longer to confirm that influenza has spread to a particular state or region of the country. Now, however, Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, has demonstrated it can track flu cases faster by analyzing the use of common search terms, such as "flu" and "flu-like" and "flu vaccine," to estimate flu activity.
Google Flu Trends surveillance tool was launched today and shows little activity in the nation so far. The tool compares data from this season to data collected during the 2007-2008 flu activity. Last year's data was compared to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to verify that the Google flu tracker is accurate. While not everyone who searches flu terms on the Internet has the flu, a pattern emerges when all flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together.
"This could conceivably provide as early a warning of an outbreak as any system," Lyn Finelli of the CDC's influenza division told The New York Times. "The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza."
— Shari Roan
Photo credit: Peter Adams/For the Times