Researchers use search engines, social media to predict syphilis trends

April 16, 2018 by Enrique Rivero, University of California, Los Angeles
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

UCLA-led research finds that internet search terms and tweets related to sexual risk behaviors can predict when and where syphilis trends will occur.

Two studies from the UCLA-based University of California Institute for Prediction Technology, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, found an association between certain risk-related terms that Google and Twitter users researched or tweeted about and subsequent trends that were reported to the CDC. The researchers were able to pinpoint these cases at state or county levels, depending on the platform used.

"Many of the most significant public health problems in our society today—HIV and sexually transmitted infections, opioid abuse and cancer—could be prevented if we had better data on when and where these issues were occurring," said Sean Young, founder and director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior and the UC Institute for Prediction Technology. "These two studies suggest that social media and internet search data might help to fix this problem by predicting when and where future syphilis cases may occur. This could be a tool that government agencies such as the CDC might use," added Young, who is also an associate professor of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

One study, to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Epidemiology, investigated the association between state-level search queries on Google with primary and secondary syphilis cases—the earliest and most transmissible stages in the sexually transmitted infection—that were subsequently reported in these states.

For this study, the researchers compiled data for 25 keywords and phrases (such as "find sex" and "STD") collected on Google Trends from Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2014. They also obtained weekly county-level syphilis data from the CDC covering the same time period for all 50 states, merged that data by state and collated them with the weekly Google Trends data they had collected.

The research incorporated a type of statistical computer science model called machine learning, which can look through large amounts of data to find patterns and predict those patterns. This artificial intelligence-based machine looked at the relationship between people's syphilis-related searches on Google and actual rates of syphilis over a period of time. After learning that pattern, it tested whether it could accurately predict future syphilis cases by using just the syphilis-related Google search terms.

Researchers found that the model predicted 144 weeks of syphilis counts for each state with 90 percent accuracy, allowing them to predict state-level trends in syphilis before they would have occurred.

Researchers from the institute found the same held true with Twitter. In a study published in Preventive Medicine, they took county-level Twitter data from May 26 to Dec. 9, 2012, amounting to 8,538 geo-located tweets. As with the Google Trends analysis, the researchers compiled a list of words associated with .

They reviewed weekly county-level cases of primary and secondary syphilis and early latent syphilis (infection within the previous 12 months, with no symptoms evident) that likely occurred over the previous 12 months. The cases were from the 50 states and Washington, D.C., and were reported to the CDC from 2012 to 2013. The 2012 data were included because a county's previous syphilis rates are likely to predict future rates, and they wanted to determine how the Twitter-based method would perform matched with the previous year's data.

They found that counties having higher risk-related tweets in 2012 were associated with a 2.7 percent jump in primary and secondary and a 3.6 percent boost in early latent syphilis cases in 2013. By comparison, counties that reported higher numbers of syphilis cases in 2012 were associated with increases of 0.6 percent and 0.4 percent of primary/secondary and early latent syphilis cases, respectively, in 2013, suggesting that the Twitter-based model performed as well as simply using previous year's syphilis data. This is important because Twitter data are extremely inexpensive and suggest that social media data are low-cost alternatives for predicting syphilis.

Both studies have certain limitations. For the Google paper, they include the likelihood that many primary and cases are not reported; the findings were biased toward Google users, who account for about 64 percent of search engine users; and the Google Trends data are a random sampling of all data and not the full dataset, which might have affected how the model worked. In the Twitter study's case, data were based on Twitter users, which is a select sample of people; the researchers reviewed data only for 2012 and 2013, when data from a longer time span would be needed to develop appropriate public health responses; and some areas with high numbers of syphilis cases may have had public health messaging via that contained relevant keywords that were captured in the data the researchers examined.

Explore further: First ever state-level primary and secondary syphilis report shows highest cases among MSM

More information: Sean D. Young et al, Using Search Engine Data as a Tool to Predict Syphilis, Epidemiology (2018). DOI: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000836

Related Stories

First ever state-level primary and secondary syphilis report shows highest cases among MSM

November 2, 2017
Researchers from Emory's Rollins School of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the first ever report of state-level rates of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis by race/ethnicity ...

CDC: syphilis rates up among U.S. men who have sex with men

April 7, 2017
(HealthDay)—Syphilis rates among men who have sex with men (MSM) have increased significantly in the past two decades, according to research published in the April 7 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ...

As newborn syphilis cases rise, maternal screening urged

February 6, 2018
(HealthDay)—Newborn syphilis cases have shot up in the United States in recent years, so an expert panel is reaffirming the need to screen all pregnant women for the infection.

Health officials warn of blinding cases of syphilis on West Coast

March 12, 2015
(HealthDay)—Health care providers on the West Coast need to look out for syphilis that can cause blindness, public health officials say.

Syphilis cuts CD4 counts, ups viral load in HIV-infected men

July 26, 2012
(HealthDay) -- Syphilis is associated with a transient decrease in the CD4 cell count and with an increase in viral load (VL) in HIV-infected men, according to a study published online July 23 in the Archives of Internal ...

Syphilis infections on the rise in Europe

May 18, 2016
New data released in ECDC's Annual Epidemiological report show that since 2010, the overall syphilis rates have been going up across Europe, particularly among men. In 2014, the reported syphilis numbers were six times higher ...

Recommended for you

A new approach to developing a vaccine against vivax malaria

September 21, 2018
A novel study reports an innovative approach for developing a vaccine against Plasmodium vivax, the most prevalent human malaria parasite outside sub-Saharan Africa. The study led by Hernando A. del Portillo and Carmen Fernandez-Becerra, ...

Pre-clinical success for a universal flu vaccine offers hope for third generation approach

September 21, 2018
Researchers from the University of Oxford's Department of Zoology have demonstrated pre-clinical success for a universal flu vaccine in a new paper published in Nature Communications.

Researchers define possible molecular pathway for neurodegeneration in prion diseases

September 21, 2018
A new study has shed light on the mechanisms underlying the progression of prion diseases and identified a potential target for treatment.

Fighting a deadly parasite: Scientists devise a method to store Cryptosporidium, aiding vaccine research efforts

September 21, 2018
In May, just before one of the hottest summers on record, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning about diseases lurking in recreational water facilities like swimming pools and water playgrounds. ...

Scientists make significant discovery in the fight against drug-resistant tuberculosis

September 20, 2018
A team of scientists have identified a naturally occurring antibiotic that may help in the fight against drug-resistant Tuberculosis.

Anti-cancer drugs may hold key to overcoming antimalarial drug resistance

September 20, 2018
Scientists have found a way to boost the efficacy of the world's most powerful antimalarial drug with the help of chemotherapy medicines, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.

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.