Michael Day
Publication Date
April 28, 2009

Technology Review

This article explores the role of information and communication technology (ICT) in the April 2009 swine influenza A (H1N1) outbreak. Author Michael Day contends that "Vaccines and antivirals will be crucial to the [containment] effort, but tracking and communications technologies could also play a key role in monitoring the virus, distributing accurate health information, and quelling outbreaks."

Day explains that internet tools are helping to track the spread of the virus geographically. HealthMap, which was created by researchers from Children's Hospital Boston with support from Google, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Library of Medicine, and the Canadian Institute of Health Research, adds real-time news alerts, official medical information, and other data to a global tracking map. What one expert quoted here terms "the new field of info-epidemiology" could make a difference in future epidemics, if not in the current swine flu outbreak. Internet technology and "Sites like HealthMap or Google Earth are a good new way to visualize data," Susan Perkins of the American Museum of Natural History explains. "These readily accessible platforms also let people in diverse fields - public health, evolutionary biology, et cetera - share the same information. In the future, I would hope that diseases will be able to be better tracked with software that can combine genomic information with real geographic information."

Others say that tracking the spread of the virus could help reveal how deadly it is, how easily it spreads, whether drug resistance is emerging, and how to allocate public-health resources. Jeffrey Herrmann of the University of Maryland has reportedly developed software that can analyse the spread of a disease and pinpoint the best locations for treatment or mass vaccination. He says that this approach "could be used by local public-health departments to determine how many sites and how many staff they need to dispense antiviral medication or vaccinate people."

As reported here, bloggers and social networking sites were among the first to follow the outbreak's rapid spread from its epicentre in Mexico to cities across the United States and on to Europe, Israel, and New Zealand. According to data from the medical tracking site Nielson, conversations related to swine flu reached 2% of all messages on Twitter during the final weekend in April 2009. Groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and local Red Cross divisions, as well as many regular Twitter users, are employing the service to receive updates. [By contrast, Google's Flu Trends, a website that aims to spot flu outbreaks by monitoring search queries related to flu symptoms and treatment, showed little increase in activity in the same period of time].

However, some experts warn that Twitter is also being used to spread misinformation - by, for instance, warning friends and followers against eating pork (which is not related to the spread of swine flu). Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, wrote in a blog post that "Having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them."