Social media could provide early warning of virus outbreaks

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 12 November 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6105
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1London

Outbreaks of norovirus infection may be detected earlier through study of the hashtags used on Twitter by tweeters who have fallen ill, a project backed by the Food Standards Agency has found.

In an echo of the celebrated use of Google searches to predict the advance of flu epidemics, the agency has found that following the activity of tweeters complaining they have fallen ill can anticipate clinical evidence of the outbreak by two weeks. Last week the development work won first prize in the UK government’s Digital Awards, the chief scientist at the Food Standards Agency, Guy Poppy, told a briefing at the Science Media Centre in London on 11 November.

So far the technique has been tested only retrospectively, not for predicting future outbreaks. But Poppy suggested that if it can be developed it …

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