WASHINGTON, Jan 21: Social media and internet reports can be used to reliably forecast infectious disease outbreaks, especially when data is scarce, a new study has found.
“Our study offers proof of concept that publicly available online reports released in real-time by ministries of health, local surveillance systems, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and authoritative media outlets are useful to identify key information on exposure and transmission patterns during epidemic emergencies,” researchers said.
“Our Internet-based findings on exposure patterns are in good agreement with those derived from traditional epidemiological surveillance data, which can be available after considerable delays,” they said.
Mathematical models forecasting disease transmission are often used to guide public health control strategies, but they can be difficult to formulate during the early stages of an outbreak when accurate data are scarce, according to the researchers from the Georgia State University in the US.
“In the absence of detailed epidemiological information rapidly available from traditional surveillance systems, alternative data streams are worth exploring to gain a reliable understanding of disease dynamics in the early stages of an outbreak,” they said.
To test the reliability of alternative data streams, researchers tracked and analysed reports from public health authorities and reputable media outlets posted via social media or their websites during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in South Korea.
Researchers used the reports to collect data on the viruses’ exposure patterns and transmission chains.
They also noted the West African Ebola outbreak was a particularly interesting case study because early data were limited to basic weekly case counts at the country level.
They were able to use internet reports describing Ebola cases in the three hardest hit countries – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – to glean detailed stories about cases arising in clusters within families or through funerals or hospital exposure.
“Our analysis of the temporal variation in exposure patterns provides useful information to assess the impact of control measures and behaviour changes during epidemics,” they said.
The findings are published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. (AGENCIES)