The real-time social networking service Twitter has yielded data that would have tracked the deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti, which began in October 2010, faster than any other traditional methods. The results appeared today in a special section of The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
It’s well known that these types of real-time networking services and feeds have allowed citizen journalists to report the news in some countries where the media isn’t always allowed to report accurately what is going on. The study has found that online social media and news feeds were faster and more accurate than official records, when it came time to detect the start and early progress of the epidemic.
The researchers used HealthMap, an automated surveillance platform, to measure the volume of news items generated during the first 100 days of the cholera outbreak. They also looked at the trending topics on Twitter to see the number of cholera mentions, hashtags, and posts. They discovered a correlation between the official number of infected patients and the volume of these informal types of media.
Rumi Chunara, a research fellow at HealthMap and the Harvard Medical School, is the lead author of this study, emphasized that these reports were available online up to two weeks before the official government reports were published. This could imply that researchers could use these types of new media to gain early insight into evolving epidemics. This could entail a more rapid response from health officials.
Chunara stated that these media are cost-effective, rapid, and can be easily used to reach populations in isolated areas, who don’t have access to healthcare or who wouldn’t seek it. Chunara also highlighted that this method included a finer temporal and spatial resolution.
James Wilson warns that social media reports were often inaccurate due to the geographic bias of the journalists, since most of them were clustered in the capital, Port-au-Prince, not on the ground. Chunara has recognized that the feeds could be biased towards urban or developed areas, certain age groups, and might contain false alerts. All of these issues will have to be considered if these methods were to be used in an official capacity.
Reference: “Social and News Media Enable Estimation of Epidemiological Patterns Early in the 2010 Haitian Cholera Outbreak” by Rumi Chunara, Jason R. Andrews and John S. Brownstein, 1 January 2012, The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.