Google tool seeks to track flu trends

Google searches for terms associated with influenza will be used this season to help track outbreaks of the virus across the country, Google officials announced Nov 11.

“By tracking the popularity of certain Google search queries, our engineers have discovered that we can accurately estimate the level of flu in each state, in near real time,” a Google official said.

Google.org launched the tool, Flu Trends, to make that information accessible.

During the last flu season, Google shared its preliminary results with the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The search-based flu estimates consistently correlated with real CDC flu data.

Across each of the nine surveillance regions of the United States, Google was able to accurately estimate current flu levels one to two weeks faster than published CDC reports, according to Google officials.

The system is still considered experimental, and Google officials will continue to monitor it.

CDC uses a variety of methods to track influenza across the United States each year. One method relies on a network of more than 1,500 doctors who see 16 million patients each year. The doctors keep track of the percentage of their patients who have an influenza-like illness. CDC and state health departments collect and aggregate that data each week, which provides a good picture of flu activity across the United States.

If the Google method ends up being faster than CDC’s traditional method it could help health officials to better respond to seasonal epidemics and pandemics.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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