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Pharmacists might be surprised to learn that one of the most powerful tools available to prepare them for an impending flu epidemic is one they've been using for years to locate local movie listings or hunt down a rare piece of trivia.
Google has developed a way to leverage its search technology to create a tool that can predict oncoming flu activity with an accuracy consistent with surveillance systems used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - except the technology company can do it two weeks faster.
That's two weeks extra to stock up on OTC medicine, thermometers, tissues, and perhaps an extra delivery of The National Enquirer.
The company discovered that certain search terms used by people who think they're becoming ill are good indicators of flu activity. For example, someone getting sick may enter terms such as "cough," or "fever" to learn about possible remedies for their illness. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in a particular location.
Traditional flu tracking systems rely on virologic and clinical data. A network of sentinel laboratories performs virologic testing, by counting and classifying influenza viruses collected from patients, while a network of sentinel physicians reports the fraction of patients presenting with an influenza-like illness (ILI). CDC publishes national and regional data from these surveillance systems on a weekly basis, typically with a 1-2 week reporting lag.
However, a person getting the flu may perform a google search on the symptoms or remedies before the flu sets in. Additionally, not everyone with the flu goes to a doctor -- but they may still go to the Web.
Google provides daily estimates of flu activity in the U.S. that can be viewed on the Flu Trends Web site (www.google.org/flutrends) or downloaded as a CSV file for analysis.
The Flu Tracker was developed under Google.org's Predict and Prevent initiative, which supports efforts to identify hotspots where new infectious diseases may emerge, detect new pathogens and outbreaks earlier, and respond quickly to prevent local threats from becoming global crises.