Google searches for a food-borne disease spiked almost a month before the official announcement of an outbreak linked to a Canadian deli meat plant, providing an early warning of the fatal outbreak, a Boston researcher reports.
The finding suggests a potential role for online disease-search surveillance.
In the Canadian Medical Association Journal, John Brownstein of Children's Hospital Boston describes an increase in Google searches for "listeriosis" that began in mid-July and peaked before mid-August, when authorities publicized the outbreak. Twenty people died in the outbreak last summer.
Brownstein and his colleagues at Children's and Harvard Medical School are the creators of Healthmap.org, a free, interactive disease alert map that distills a variety of information sources on infectious disease outbreaks around the world into one free Web-based system, as this item noted last year.
Brownstein and his co-author, Dr. Kumanan Wilson of the University of Ottawa, also cite other Web-based tools in their article looking back at the listeriosis searches.
"A question that arises from this analysis is whether knowledge of this information, either by public health officials or members of the public, could have prompted an earlier response that may have reduced exposure to the contaminated products," they write. "Internet scanning represents an important advancement in health surveillance and search term surveillance is a provocative new tool that has much potential."
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