Using social media as a means to track possible epidemics has always been a goal of medical researchers and now it turns out that Twitter was able to accomplish that goal, discovering an epidemic two weeks before medical researchers.
According to the study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene it was Twitter that first caught the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, breaking the epidemic two weeks before officials could even collect the data needed to reach a consensus.
The study’s lead author Rumi Chunara, Ph.D notes:
“We can definitely use these sources to get early information about how a disease is spreading, and consequently help inform control or response efforts sooner” while adding “One of the great benefits of these novel data streams is that they are available in real time.”
To better understand how they can trend epidemic data researchers are now examining timeline information and developing lists of hashtags (#) that will allow them to track outbreaks.
During the study the team looked at the simple hashtag #cholera from Oct. 20 through Nov. 3, 2010 and found 65,728 tweets with the word “cholera” which were posted two weeks before they declared an epidemic. Researchers then used health monitoring service HealthMap to track 188,819 tweets in the first 100 days after the initial upsurge
While Twitter has proven successful in monitoring an outbreak researchers must now determine their best plan of action when it comes to tracking real-time results through the social network.