The term “Twitter epidemiology” is not new, but researchers have struggled to find efficient methods of tracking disease outbreaks via social media posts and web searches. This is especially vital in conditions such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), where stigma and embarrassment limit public sharing of symptoms even among friends. Who can blame such reticence? (As one with a ridiculous number of Facebook “friends” myself, I would think twice about revealing my cat’s ailments, let alone my own.) Unfortunately, STD’s flourish in the dark, so to speak, and the incidence of such diseases is on the rise. The specter of antibiotic resistance adds to the urgency of tracking STD outbreaks in real time before they can spread further.
While Google search trends have been followed for disease outbreaks such as flu, for instance, its use has been limited to the publicly available Google Trends data. Starting this summer however, Google began to allow researchers unrestricted access to its search data in order to facilitate the development of real time analytical tools to pinpoint outbreaks without having to wait for local public health officials to verify and report cases. It is assumed that STD information seekers – especially those in the 15-24 year old age range hit hardest by these diseases – will be more likely to use search engines to find out about their symptoms than tweet their friends about them.
This allows researchers to identify trends in searches for specific symptoms such as “vaginal discharge.” While researchers must guard against relying on a single source for data, Google provides a treasure trove for public health surveillance if methods for utilizing the data in real time prove practical. Stay tuned!