Can Social Media Spot Vaccine Scares and Predict Outbreaks?

social-media-vaccine-scares-predict-outbreaksWhile most people believe social media is used only to keep in touch with family and friends, public health officials are starting to believe it can be used for other purposes as well. With more and more outbreaks of measles and other diseases in recent years, researchers now think they can use various social media platforms to gain a greater understanding of how people view possible outbreaks of diseases, and also how they perceive the risks associated with getting vaccinated for those diseases. In doing so, they hope to be able to stay one step ahead of future disease outbreaks, and help those in danger of getting sick stay healthy.

Predictive Models Using Social Media

Surprisingly to many people, public health officials and researchers are using advanced mathematical concepts and data to learn more about current and future trends regarding disease outbreaks and vaccines. Using data gleaned from social media posts on Facebook, tweets from Twitter, Google searches, and other data, healthcare researchers are becoming able to spot health trends in certain parts of the nation, and also learn about how people perceive the outbreaks as well as the vaccines that would be used to combat the diseases.

Measurable Signals

To use the data to its greatest advantage, researchers look at a variety of factors. One of the most important involves what are known as measurable signals, considered by researchers to be events that show people in certain parts of the country reacting one way or another to the disease outbreak. For example, if a tweet appeared on Twitter from a noted celebrity discussing the situation, researchers could examine how people reacted to the tweet based on the comments that followed. By doing so, public health workers could then create programs for certain locales that were at greater risk of having disease outbreaks, averting potentially hazardous situations from happening.

Problems with Media Sources

While this process sounds very cut and dry, it does come with a variety of unique problems that can in some ways hinder researchers from gathering the information they seek. One of the biggest issues involves privacy, since the data involved concerns people’s medical health. However, as health officials point out, since posts on Facebook and tweets on Twitter are put out there for thousands of people to see, it’s anticipated that those posting the information have little if any problem with that data being used in research studies. However, another problem that can be even more daunting involves the ability to construct computer programs that can accurately and reliably use the social media information to produce health forecasts and maps illustrating real-time illness reports. But by creating programs that rely on using specific phrases, such as people stating “I have the measles” or ” I have the flu,” computer programs are becoming much more accurate.

Mobile Apps

With people everywhere relying on smartphones more and more in their daily lives, researchers at Johns Hopkins and other universities and corporations are developing new apps to help with this process. One of the most interesting organizations is Sickweather, which created an app allowing people to report illnesses directly to the organization, and also view how many other illnesses have been reported in their area. While still relatively new, the app has been shown to predict the peak time of diseases in parts of the U.S. well ahead of the CDC, showing the potential of how people and technology can merge to head off potential disaster.

While there is still much research to be done in this area, it appears that social media and public health do have interesting possibilities when used together.

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