When the world catches flu, Google sneezes


When the next flu outbreak begins, the first alert may come from a flurry of Google searches.

Google Flu Trends, created by the company’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, provides daily estimates of the number of flu cases in the US, based on trends in flu-related internet
searches such as queries about symptoms.

The estimates made by Google’s new software match the weekly flu statistics compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from doctors’ reports, says Neil Ferguson of Imperial
College London, UK, who is familiar with the project. Moreover, Google Flu Trends can detect an outbreak days before it shows up in the weekly CDC reports, he says.

The extra warning time won’t stop outbreaks, but could play an important role in helping hospitals prepare for a surge in patients.

«Even outside of pandemics, just with seasonal flu, the severe years can really stress healthcare systems», says Ferguson.

If successful in combating flu, the technology could be applied to other diseases around the world. It might even help to prevent new infectious diseases from taking root, says Larry
Brilliant, head of Google.org.

Google Earth – the company’s interactive map – is already be used to track avian flu outbreaks and mutations [link needs Google Earth application].

David Shiga


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