Google Search Terms Used to Track Disease Outbreaks

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Chart comparing search results for MRSA with hospitalizations for the condition. [Photo: CDC]
Google search terms have been used to illustrate shifts in language, news awareness, and pop culture knowledge--see Ngrams, Trends, and Zeitgeist. But while it’s fun to see the break between the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror", search terms can also provide important information on the spread of disease. Google Flu Trends retroactively showed a spike in searches for flu symptoms that could have predicted the swine flu outbreak in 2009; now a paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US says that searches for symptoms of a nasty antibiotic-resistant infection can track the spread of MRSA.

Methocillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) entered the public consciousness in the 80s as a hazard of the already-weakened immune systems of hospital patients. In the 90s, a second strain started showing up in healthy communities. Both strains had developed resistance to most common antibiotics, and cause painful sores that can eventually lead to sepsis, toxic shock syndrome, and necrotizing pneumonia. The CDC estimated that in 2005, more Americans were killed by MRSA than AIDS.

One of the main problems in keeping the outbreak under control is that there’s no standardized, city-by-city surveillance method to track the spread of MRSA--the Active Bacterial Core surveillance system helps a bit, but leaves many locations unexamined. A research team at the University of Chicago has shown that Google search terms for MRSA or symptoms thereof give an accurate prediction of hospitalizations due to the infection, when adjusted for post-news article curiosity (there was a spike in searches after a 2007 CDC report).

While Flu Trends could be used to track early warning signs, the MRSA trends will probably prove most useful in planning of public awareness campaigns--the disease is treated effectively by synthetic antibiotics such as Linezolid and Daptomycin, but can be largely prevented by careful sanitizing and screening.

Some of the drawbacks of depending on Google search terms, of course, include the complexity of the original term: “mersa”, the phonetic spelling for MRSA, is often used, and the Emerging Infectious Diseases article points out that “the correctly spelled ‘methicillin’ is too rare to track”.

[Emerging Infectious Diseases (CDC) via Wired]

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