Naimul's Note: This post does not intend to convey any medical advice. The opinions within are my own and do not reflect the positions of my employer.
Misinformation is a powerful thing. The other day I had a conversation with a friend who was vacillating on whether or not she should visit Mexico. The tickets were purchased and non refundable, but something was holding her back. I could tell she hated to lose the chance to bask in sunny Cancún, but another part of her shouted that it was a small price to pay to avoid being a multiplier in what might be a pandemic. I reinforced that little voice.
“You know,” I said with all the confidence of a Master from the Harvard School of Public Health, “they’re saying the Swine Flu has a 50% death rate.”
“No it doesn’t,” she replied.
“No, I’m pretty sure it does" (here is the clincher): “I read about it online.”
I mean come on, right? That’s where everyone gets their information these days.
At this point she reminded me that she was in fact a Master of Public Health from Harvard and roundly condemned my research methodology. I actually thought that the 50% statistic sounded accurate. After all, I could have sworn I had heard something similar about the Bird Flu, or the Hoof and Mouth...or the Cholera, or something. As she deconstructed the likelihood of there being a 50% death rate to Swine Flu through statistical analysis, I started to realize that I had probably read the "fact" about death rates on twitter.
There is an uproar in the blogging and health community about the popular micro blogging service's role in causing panic (http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/04/27/swine.flu.twitter/). While fantastic for spreading bite size information, twitter isn't held to the same journalistic standard as most newspapers. Newspaper articles are often accompanied by expert advice or well researched statistics. That isn't to say you should believe everything in the paper--but it is far more likely that you'll find real numbers there than on a blog or on twitter. So how do the people in charge of informing us about these health crisis combat the groundswell of untruth? By reaching us in the places we already frequent.
The popular social media blog Mashable recently published an article with four ways to track Swine Flu (http://mashable.com/2009/04/25/track-swine-flu/). These days we don't have to wait around for our local paperboy to hawk the latest headline--the technology of information sharing has become swift and collaborative. According to the article on Mashable, the World Health Organization has an online disease outbreak center that releases breaking news on potential epidemics. The site is equipped with an RSS feed (http://www.who.int/feeds/entity/csr/don/en/rss.xml) to disperse the information even further. If that isn't enough there are Google News Alerts that you can port right into your Google Reader, the CDC has a travel alert bulletin on their website, and other comprehensive disease related news feeds are free for syndication.
Photo Source: Google Experimental Flu Trends for Mexico
For the visual types, we're now able to map out where outbreaks are occurring in real time thanks to websites like healthmap.org. If you want both geographic and chronological mapping of the spread of disease, you can visit http://darwin.zoology.gla.ac.uk/~rpage/flu/ where disease is charted over time with reference to points of activity on the map. Google.org has revolutionized the concept of trend tracking by monitoring what people are searching for in specific geographic locations. Their flu tracker (http://www.google.org/flutrends/) has been shown to have incredible accuracy (by someone credible, like the CDC) in monitoring where flu outbreaks are occurring. The technology is simpler here: track the search terms "flu, symptoms, flu cure, flu treatment, etc" and you know what people are wondering about in a certain part of the country. Brilliant.
Health leaders are starting to combat the spread of misinformation by providing reliable information in its place. Both the CDC and the aforementioned Healthmap are on Twitter (http://twitter.com/CDCEmergency and http://twitter.com/healthmap respectively) with updates on the latest outbreaks of Swine Flu and other health related issues. Rather than trying to stem the tide of bad data out there, they're going with the flow to offer a safer alternative.
Photo Source: Healthmap.org
If you don't have time visit all those sites, the good people at http://swineflu.blokcast.com/ have put it all in one place. There you can find tweets, blogs, videos, news, and even photos related to Swine Flu without ever having to click a link or open a new tab.
I used to read Wikipedia with disdain--looking to it as a false beacon in the desert of complicated research tools. Now I find myself taking the advice of potentially inebriated bloggers and sharing it with others. What I have to find is a balance of credulity and incredulousness--we can't go around being gullible all the time. I've checked, gullible IS on dictionary.com and it is NOT a good thing.
But, if I somehow find myself in a Swine Flu infected township despite the best efforts of social media-wielding public health analysts, at least I'll always have opportunistic medical supply companies offering me Swine Flu Pandemic Kits!
The technology exists to put public health reporting directly in the hands of the people. Will this technology change the way we react to disease?
Follow me on twitter: @naimul