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Digital disease detection — Harnessing the web for public health surveillance

This paper, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, examines how the Internet can help monitor, prevent and control emerging diseases. The authors argue that the emergence of influenza A(H1N1), or 'swine flu', in April 2009 shows the value web-based information holds for early disease monitoring.

Informal internet channels such as blogs, chat rooms and search engine request analyses can help identify outbreaks more quickly, prevent governments suppressing information and facilitate public health responses. Google and Yahoo data searches can be used to generate epidemic curves that show the number of new infections plotted against time, and are comparable to those derived from traditional influenza surveillance methods.

The Internet also connects experts — through wikis and social networks — to quickly disseminate reports and responses. There is also great potential from public information.

The authors give examples of approaches being taken to monitor infectious diseases, including swine flu, and highlight some of the online resources available, including Google Flu Trends, HealthMap and ProMED.