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Tracking the Flu

 Projects tracking the spread of the flu through analysis of social media posts aim to provide more public health information.

           Every year, with the turn of the fall season, the sounds of coughing and sneezing transform into warning alarms for the flu.

The flu is a top health concern each year, particularly for college students who may face missing classes, having to reschedule exams, postponing homework or calling out of work if afflicted with the virus.

In an effort to learn more about how the virus spreads, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publishes weekly reports on the flu. The information in these reports often contains data up to two weeks old because of delayed data collection.

“There are a lot of gaps in the system that Twitter can fill” said Mark Dredze in a CNN article. Dredze is an assistant research professor and head of a Johns Hopkins public health project to track the spread of the flu virus through social media.

With Twitter achieving an average of 340 million tweets daily according to the CNN article, social media posts provide public health experts with access to a plethora of self-reported illness information.

Initiatives such as Dredze’s use of social media to track the flu along with similar projects, like Germ Tracker from the University of Rochester or the Sick Weather project that utilizes Facebook and Twitter posts, can play a great role in collecting real time information about the flu as people post about their symptoms or illness.

Many of these tracking projects recognize a flu post through use of key words such as ‘sick,’ ‘vaccine,’ ‘flu’ or a variety of medication names.

“The very simple thing is you look at Twitter and look at the number of people using the word ‘flu’ or ‘sick’ everyday” said Dredze, referring to the potential misinterpretation of posts.

Recognizing this issue of posts being misidentified as an illness case, Dredze’s team developed an algorithm based on keywords to help the computer system decipher which posts are actually talking about an influenza case to report the most accurate findings.

The culmination of these tracking efforts will help researchers better understand the virus’ spread, potentially allowing them to better predict outbreaks and enhance preparation of specific areas for the flu season.

On college campuses, many university health service centers hope that the availability of public health information regarding flu spread will persuade more students to attend university sponsored flu vaccine clinics.

“[Ebola] is still a very low-risk for the majority of the population, but the flu is not . . . The flu spreads really easily, especially in institutions like a university” said Lauren Drinkard a representative of the University of Pennsylvania’s Student Health Service, in a Huffington Post article.

Only 8 percent of college students received the flu vaccine in the recent year reported University of Buffalo professor Janet Yang in a Huffington Post article.

Many universities are working to increase this percentage, especially with the CDC finding that “nearly 60% of the flu-associated hospitalizations reported to CDC’s influenza surveillance system were in people 18 to 64 years old” according to the CDC website.

This is a marked increase in hospitalizations for non-elderly adults compared to recent years.

With the availability of flu tracking project information and potential apps open for public use, officials hope to learn from their statistical analyses and also encourage adults, particularly college students, to receive a flu vaccine.