A young boy suffering with a stomachache, leaning up against a toilet. Shot with natural light coming through a window.
Food agencies are taking innovative approaches to tracking foodborne illness outbreaks. A young boy suffering with a stomach ache, leaning up against a toilet.
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We hate food poisoning. He’s ruined our job interviews, first dates and vacations. He’s stolen all our sick days so we can’t play hooky and go to the beach. He’s a pretty rude fella. But how many of us report it to health authorities? Not many. Instead we lie in bed (or sit on the toilet) tweeting out complaints about our gastrointestinal status and vow to never consume sushi again (famous last words.)

Our tweets do not go unnoticed. Public health agencies are listening. City public health departments across the country are taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to track foodborne illnesses, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The Chicago Department of Public Health was the first agency to take this innovative approach to tracking illness. Partnering with local web developers and The Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit organization civic organization dedicated to improving the lives of Chicago, the Department developed an app that scans Twitter for potential food poisoning-related tweets. Tweets that contain keywords like “sick” and “diarrhea” are flagged for health inspectors, and the inspectors follow up on those that they think may be evidence of foodborne illness.

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Last year, the app flagged 2,900 tweets as potentially related to foodborne illness, Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, told JAMA. Inspectors followed up on 330 of these tweets via tweet or direct message and 87 percent of these people ended up filing a report of their illness.

Here are the types of tweets they’re following up on:

Following Chicago’s lead, The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is developing a similar food poisoning tracking app. The agency has partnered with Columbia University computer scientists and the restaurant review site Yelp to search for comments and complaints related to sickness.

While the app is still under development, the public health department launched a pilot project last year to examine the potential of such an application. The project used a model software program to analyze 294,000 Yelp reviews between July 2012 and March 2013, according to a report of the study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The program flagged 499 of these reviews due to keywords such as “vomit,” “sick,” and other food-poisoning related symptoms. In follow-up interviews with 27 of these reviewers, three previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks were exposed. Inspectors pursued further investigation of the poorly-reviewed restaurants and found multiple food safety violations at three restaurants.

Both New York and Chicago are working to further develop their applications by adding other social media and review sites and refining key words.

(h/t: JAMA)