Influenza, arguably, grew to epidemic proportions in the United States and Europe this year, according to Google Flu Trends. Search traffic for illness symptoms reached the most intense since the dawn of the information age. Fortunately, we now have the ability to defend against infection using resources derived from the Internet – in particular, social media.
Facebook, Twitter and Google can tell us who among our friends might have a cold or flu, where one might catch sickness and when the worst time of year we might encounter those infected.
This article outlines 5 apps and websites, from sources as diverse as Facebook and Twitter, that will help you avoid getting infected with a seasonal illness.
CDC Flu Informant, (unofficial app) – my favorite health app for Android offers an all-in-one experience. It’s the Swiss army knife of apps – CDC includes podcasts, a news ticker, links to featured articles, text-streams from CDC officials’ Facebook and Twitter accounts and a great deal more.
Do not confuse the unofficial CDC app for the official one, however. The official CDC app requires full Internet access permissions and yet only offers a simple “emergency supply” checklist. Strangely enough, it also requires Adobe Air—as a consequence of its poor design, I highly suggest that you do not install the official app.
Out of the influenza virus apps that I tried, my preference is for CDC Flu Informant. The app’s standout quality is its versatility, which is exactly what you would need from a mobile application.
The Gold Standard
Google Flu Trends - the gold standard of all the flu tracking apps, Google Flu Trends, remains one of the most reliable methods of determining the intensity and geographic extensiveness of a flu outbreak.
Essentially, Google theorized that when people get sick, they search for symptoms relating to their illness. The more intense the search traffic for flu symptoms in a state, the greater likelihood that those within the state suffered from an illness.
You can tell from the image below that the US sneezed its way into the height of the cold and flu season, this week. The darker red shows more intense search patterns, favoring flu symptoms.
Trends famously tracked the spread of the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic. After catching it myself, I distinctly remember reading Tina’s article on Swine flu back in 2009, while burning up with a 105 degree fever that took a week to break. Her article may have saved my life.
You can tell from the dark blue line (1) that searches for flu symptoms exceed even 2009′s Swine flu global pandemic (2).
The Social Apps
MappyHealth, which indexes Twitter in a similar manner as Google Trends, may suffer from poor website aesthetics, but its methodology offers a brilliant analysis of a variety of illnesses. It simply scans Twitter for keywords pertaining to ill health and indexes their location and identifies the potential illness.
Strange enough, Orlando appears to have sustained the brunt of the flu epidemic. Also, you can use this app for diseases as exotic as dengue fever or the increasingly common, food-borne norovirus.
As you can see, Tweets pertaining to the flu have increased substantially since the 14th of January, but have since tapered off.
Sickweather provides one of the more comprehensive analyses of influenza activity, indexing both Facebook feeds and Twitter. It also has the ability to filter results for particular kinds of illnesses, such as Norovirus, stomach “flu” and a great deal more.
You can tell from the Sickweather map above that Google Flu Trends may have overreacted. While it’s clear that the flu has spread far and wide, the majority of the ill inhabit densely populated cities.
Even more amazing, you can zoom in on individual, geotagged tweets by using the zoom keys in the upper left-hand side of the screen. Basically, anytime someone tweets that they’re sick, it sticks to the map. The wary may use the app to avoid high risk areas.
The red circle shows where an individual, who Tweeted an illness symptom, lies in wait.
Help I Have the Flu scans your Facebook friends’ activity, searching for keywords relating to illness. Friends who mention having a sore throat, cough or other sign of illness get flagged and reported to you. If you already caught an illness, the app will find who likely made you sick. Or it will blame the wrong person. Either way, it will help you feel better.
The app requires several permissions, although you can easily remove the app after using it, though the Facebook App Panel.
Out of all the five apps presented here, my preference is for using Sickweather. In one crucial way, Sickweather represents the future of predicting disease: it analyzes how social diseases spread by looking at social networks.
While search trends do provide an excellent indication of the extent of a viral outbreak, ultimately the best method for tracking a disease will be through the mouths of those who spread it.