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Social Media, Ebola and the Flu

HealthMap-300x189Infectious disease is a social phenomenon because it is transmitted among people.

Now we can use information transmitted among people via social media to track, contain, and prevent disease.

A key part of our public health system is surveillance which is the collection and interpretation of health-related data in order to plan, implement, and evaluate public health practices.

You can become part of the health surveillance system and doing so may help you avoid infectious disease.

The resources referred to in this article with annotations and more are available at Dr. Tech’s Bookmarks.

Crowdsourcing is the use of social media to produce resources from contributions from self-selected members of a population.

An amazing instance of crowdsourcing health information is HeathMap,, which openly tracked the 2014 outbreak of a ‘mystery hemorrhagic fever’ more than a week before any official announcement of an outbreak.

HealthMap works by aggregating data about disease incidences from its members.

Anyone can join HealthMap and contribute information to it.

Enter a report illness symptoms and HeathMap will plot that data in time and space and correlate it with other reports.

A similar project from the same group at Boston Children’s Hospital is Flu Near You,, which collects and displays incidences of influenza.

Both HealthMap and Flu Near You apps are available at no cost for iOS on App Store and Android on Google play.

Another technological approach to disease surveillance is Google Flu Trends which analyzes search terms such as “flu,” “cough” and “Mucinex” in order to track the spread of influenza,

So how does Dr. Tech know so much about infectious disease?

I don’t.

Instead I  visited Dr. Jeff Bethel, Assistant Professor of the OSU School of Public Health.

He has a Doctorate in Epidemiology (2005 UC Davis), worked for the Center for Disease Control and teaches graduate courses in epidemiology.

Jeff and I talked about what people typically believe and know about Ebola,Ebola_virus_virion influenza and other infectious diseases.

There is a lot of misinformation about infectious diseases.

While talk radio and other anxiety-based media raise alarms about an Ebola pandemic in the United States, Jeff says this is unlikely because the US health system is prepared to contain it.

Ebola is not a respiratory disease; it is contracted through direct contact and bodily fluids, not through the air.

The chances of Ebola mutating to become airborne are very, very small.

As Jeff observed; “It would take a significant amount of mutations to become airborne. We never have seen a virus that is transmitted through direct contact and bodily fluids like Ebola is, then switching to become airborne.”

Jeff said that the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS ) “is our most recent frame of reference for global pandemics and viruses like SARS have the potential to do some harm in the United States because respiratory diseases spread more quickly than Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers.”

Put in perspective, the 2003 SARS pandemic resulted in 8,273 cases world-wide, 775 of whom died from the infection.

170px-H1N1_influenza_virusCompare that to the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic in which 50 million people died world-wide.

Reviewing such histories underscores the importance of public health and the contributions of information technology to it.

Crowdsourcing technologies such as HeathMap and Flu Near You are changing the way that our species responds to disease.

Equally important is the quality of the information sources that we use to guide public health policy.

I asked Jeff what are the top 5 sources of information about infectious disease for OSU students; he answered;

1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the best source of information on public health, hands-down,

2. World Health Organization (WHO) for global perspectives,

3. State Public Health Se such as Oregon Health Authority,

4. County health agencies such as Benton County Health Services

OSU Student Health Services –

Jeff reminds us that the most powerful technology for staying healthy is your own brain; make the choices that keep you healthy from infectious disease.

1. Get a flu vaccination every year; it is never too late to get your flu shot.

2. Use effective hand hygiene; wash your hands frequently and keep your fingers (pencils, etc.) out of your eyes, nose, and mouth.

3. Practice safe sex, which is all about direct contact and body fluids.

I hope that you will join me in using Flu Near You regularly.

It will be fascinating to see how our campus community may respond to the flu season when informed by our collective reporting.

Dr. Tech says, get the Flu Near You app, share the sites on Facebook and stay healthy.

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