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Health Officials Using Google To Track Flu Outbreaks

CDC Warns Flu Season Could Be Bad

Public health officials around the country are turning to the Internet for warning signs of flu outbreaks.

Often when people have the flu, they Google information on relieving symptoms like fever, body aches and cough. A new study shows this real time data is becoming an effective tool for predicting and tracking influenza outbreaks.

Special Feature Google Flu Trends

Photo credit: County of San Diego Public Health Services

San Diego County Influenza Detections by Type and Week of Report, 2012-13 YTD (as of 11/24/12)

Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have created a computer model that can potentially estimate the probability of flu outbreaks up to seven weeks in advance.

The model uses Google Flu Trends, which tracks the number of flu-related Internet searches in a map combined with historical flu season data. The goal is to be able to warn people and doctors of the impending outbreak.

San Diego County health officials keep an eye on Google's Flu Trends, but still rely on reports from doctors, hospitals and laboratory results as their primary flu surveillance, according to Eric McDonald, deputy health officer for the County of San Diego.

"We just use that as just kind of an informal adjunct," said McDonald. "I mean, we have very good surveillance systems in place and knowing that that one also is there, we kind of look at it and see that it tracks usually with the other things that we’re following.

McDonald said the Google tool has tracked San Diego’s influenza reasonably well over the past three years.

He said there is currently a mild level of flu activity around the county, and expects the region’s flu season to peak in January or February.

Flu season is getting an early start in the Southern United States. The Center for Disease Control on Monday said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.

"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

The Associated Press contributed to the information in this report.

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