Google trends Flu activity in ANZ

Authorities hope to respond to outbreaks faster

With all the news about the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak, search giant Google has included Australia and New Zealand in its Flu Trends service, which estimates the number of cases through Internet searches on the topic.

Google made the announcement on its company blog.

“We continue to see a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms,” a spokesperson for the company said.

“While some existing flu tracking systems may take days or weeks to collect and release data, Google search queries can be counted immediately.”

Google Flu Trends is updated daily and may provide early detection of flu outbreaks. The company hopes this information complements existing flu surveillance efforts.

According to the Minister for Ageing Australia, in 2007 there were 2623 deaths attributed to influenza and pneumonia.

Between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths result from Influenza each year globally, according to the World Health Organization.

To create Flu Trends for Australia, Google worked with historical seasonal flu data from the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL), as well as its own historical search data to build a model for Victoria.

Head of the epidemiology unit at VIDRL, Heath Kelly, said Influenza experts recommend gathering information from multiple sources to best understand and monitor influenza activity, and Google Flu Trends provides an additional source of data that can help identify trends in activity.

"Having additional sources of data will be even more important than usual in the current influenza season, with the circulation of novel influenza A (H1N1), commonly known as swine flu, already established in Victoria,” Kelly said.

According to Google, the service cannot be used to identify individual users, rather the patterns observed are only meaningful across large populations of Google searchers.

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