Infectious disease research gets a boost from websites, blogs, and social media

July 1, 2013 by Katrina Voss, Pennsylvania State University
While public health officials around the world are on alert about the pandemic potential of new disease threats, a team that includes Penn State University biologist Marcel Salathé is developing innovative new systems and techniques to track the spread of infectious diseases, with the help of news websites, blogs, and social media. Salathé will publish an article in the 1 July 2013 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, with colleagues from the Harvard Medical School, describing the advantages and challenges of "digital epidemiology" -- a new field of increasing importance for tracking infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics by leveraging the widespread use of the Internet and mobile phones. This field is of increasing importance for tracking outbreaks of infectious diseases such as the one caused by a novel coronavirus, pictured here. Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

While public health officials around the world are on alert about the pandemic potential of new disease threats, a team that includes Penn State University biologist Marcel Salathé is developing innovative new systems and techniques to track the spread of infectious diseases, with the help of news websites, blogs, and social media. Salathé will publish an article in the 1 July 2013 issue of th New England Journal of Medicine, with colleagues from the Harvard Medical School, describing the advantages and challenges of "digital epidemiology"—a new field of increasing importance for tracking infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics by leveraging the widespread use of the Internet and mobile phones.

"In the past year, the world has seen an emerging outbreak of two viruses with considerable potential: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus and Avian Influenza A H7N9," Salathé said. He explained that the former is similar to the virus responsible for the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 and has, since 2012, infected 64 people, 38 of them fatally. Influenza A H7N9 is a virus that normally circulates in birds but has, since the beginning of 2013, infected 137 people, 32 of them fatally.

"Digital epidemiology played a crucial role in the surveillance of both Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus and Avian Influenza A H7N9 by enhancing transparency and helping to understand outbreaks more fully. It is clear that the importance of digital epidemiology will only increase in the future as more people get to broadband around the globe," said Salathé, who uses data from social media in his research to study how sentiments about vaccination spread in populations. "With 6.8 billion mobile-phones and 2.9 billion people online, it's getting increasingly hard for any micro-organism to spread undetected for long."

Salathé also said he predicts that digital epidemiology will not be limited to just for long. "Mining these novel, big-data streams is of enormous interest to practically anyone interested in health and disease," he said. "For example, researchers and public health officials could use data-mining techniques to detect adverse drug reactions, assess mental disorders, or track health behaviors much faster than they do with traditional methods."

Salathé added that he is honored to have the opportunity to reach such a wide audience through the New England Journal of Medicine. "We're hoping to put Digital Epidemiology on the agenda of every public health agency to complement their traditional efforts to track diseases and assess and mitigate the spread of infectious diseases," he said.

Explore further: New estimates suggest that a third of H7N9 patients admitted to hospital have died

Related Stories

New estimates suggest that a third of H7N9 patients admitted to hospital have died

June 23, 2013
A group of researchers at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in Beijing, China and The University of Hong Kong, analysed data on hospital admissions related to H7N9, as well as using surveillance data ...

Unique US-Chinese lab to head off H7N9 outbreak and future threats

May 28, 2013
The Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health (CII) and the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention (NIVDC) within the Chinese Center for Disease Control ...

Ferrets, pigs susceptible to H7N9 avian influenza virus

May 23, 2013
Chinese and U.S. scientists have used virus isolated from a person who died from H7N9 avian influenza infection to determine whether the virus could infect and be transmitted between ferrets. Ferrets are often used as a mammalian ...

H7N9 vaccine may take months, CDC says (Update)

April 12, 2013
US public health experts said developing a vaccine for the H7N9 strain of bird flu could take "many months", as China seeks to control an outbreak which had killed 11 people by Friday.

Two new diseases could both spark global outbreaks

May 13, 2013
Two respiratory viruses in different parts of the world have captured the attention of global health officials—a novel coronavirus in the Middle East and a new bird flu spreading in China.

10 test positive for SARS-like virus in Italy

June 3, 2013
Around 10 people in Italy have tested positive for a SARS-like virus but have presented no symptoms and have not been quarantined, an infectious diseases specialist told the ANSA news agency on Monday.

Recommended for you

Don't hold your nose and close your mouth when you sneeze, doctors warn

January 15, 2018
Pinching your nose while clamping your mouth shut to contain a forceful sneeze isn't a good idea, warn doctors in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

New antifungal provides hope in fight against superbugs

January 12, 2018
Microscopic yeast have been wreaking havoc in hospitals around the world—creeping into catheters, ventilator tubes, and IV lines—and causing deadly invasive infection. One culprit species, Candida auris, is resistant ...

Dengue takes low and slow approach to replication

January 11, 2018
A new study reveals how dengue virus manages to reproduce itself in an infected person without triggering the body's normal defenses. Duke researchers report that dengue pulls off this hoax by co-opting a specialized structure ...

Different strains of same bacteria trigger widely varying immune responses

January 11, 2018
Genetic differences between different strains of the same pathogenic bacterial species appear to result in widely varying immune system responses, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens.

Human protein may aid neuron invasion by virus that causes hand, foot, and mouth disease

January 11, 2018
A human protein known as prohibitin may play a significant role in infection of the nervous system by EV71, one of several viruses that can cause hand, foot, and mouth disease. Issac Too of the National University of Singapore ...

Untangling how Epstein-Barr virus infects cells

January 11, 2018
A team led by scientists at Northwestern Medicine has discovered a new epithelial receptor for Epstein-Barr virus, according to a study published recently in Nature Microbiology.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.