Google uses searches to track flu's spread
By Miguel Helft
New York Times News Service
SAN FRANCISCO — There is a new common symptom of the flu, in addition to the usual aches, coughs, fevers and sore throats. It turns out that a lot of ailing Americans enter phrases like "flu symptoms" into Google and other search engines before they call their doctors.
That simple act, multiplied across millions of keyboards in homes around the country, has given rise to a new early-warning system for fast-spreading flu outbreaks, called Google Flu Trends.
Tests of the new Web tool from Google.org, the company’s philanthropic unit, suggest that it may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In February, for example, the CDC reported that the flu cases had recently spiked in the mid-Atlantic states. But Google says its search data show a spike in queries about flu symptoms two weeks before that report was released. Its new service at google.org/flutrends analyzes those searches as they come in, creating graphs and maps of the country that, ideally, will show where the flu is spreading.
The CDC reports are slower because they rely on data collected and compiled from thousands of health care providers, labs and other sources. Some public health experts say the Google data could help accelerate the response of doctors, hospitals and public health officials to a nasty flu season, reducing the spread of the disease and, potentially, saving lives.
"The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza," said Dr. Lyn Finelli, lead for surveillance at the influenza division of the CDC Between 5 and 20 percent of the nation’s population contracts the flu each year, she said, leading to roughly 36,000 deaths on average.
For now, the service covers only the United States, but Google is hoping to eventually use the same technique to help track influenza and other diseases worldwide.
Some public health officials note that many health departments already use other approaches, like gathering data from visits to emergency rooms, to keep daily tabs on disease trends in their communities.
"We don’t have any evidence that this is more timely than our emergency room data," said Dr. Farzad Mostashari, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York City.