Monitoring tweets could help health authorities predict outbreaks of illnesses

Tweeting about feeling sick could help predict epidemics

Complaining on Twitter about feeling unwell could help health organisations monitor and predict outbreaks of illnesses, scientists suggested.

A system based on tracking hashtags related to illnesses using a special algorithm would even enable hospitals to prepare for an influx of patients, according to Professor Guy Poppy, the chief scientist of the Food Standards Agency – the government body responsible for monitoring food safety and hygiene across the UK.

In a pilot study, a team led by Poppy monitored hashtags about feeling unwell after eating. The researchers used special software to analyse spikes in where and how the same words were used and managed to spot several UK norovirus outbreaks up to two weeks before Public Health England became aware of the problem.

"Twitter could be a good way of picking up early indications of issues surrounding food," Poppy said during a briefing given at the Wellcome Collection in London today. "We can use it to provide a causal link between people tweeting and the outbreaks happening.

Poppy said he hopes to test the technology in cooperation with the NHS.

"This can help prepare hospitals and we are working with PhD students to explore what else we might be able to use the information for in terms of food and business," Poppy said.

In addition to monitoring general health, data generated by social media searches could provide a better insight into people’s eating and cooking habits, which could be used in turn by organisations like the Food Standards Agency to develop better safety and hygiene guidelines.

"It is important to know what food appliances people are using,” Poppy said. “Cookers that cook at different temperatures will affect food safety.”


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