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Researchers turn to Twitter to track the flu

Provided by: RELAXNEWS
Written by: Relaxnews
Jan. 31, 2013

As flu season takes its toll across North American and Europe, Johns Hopkins University in the US is using Twitter to build a tool to track the epidemic.

Flu sufferers are turning out in droves to post about their illness on Twitter, and researchers are using the tweets to gather data on how the illness is increasing or ebbing state to state in the US.

"This new work demonstrates that Twitter posts can be used to guide public health officials in their response to outbreaks of infectious diseases," says Mark Dredze, an assistant research professor in the department of computer science at Johns Hopkins. "Our hope is that the new technology can be used to track other diseases as well."

"When you look at Twitter posts, you can see people talking about being afraid of catching the flu or asking friends if they should get a flu shot or mentioning a public figure who seems to be ill," adds Dredze. "But posts like this don't measure how many people have actually contracted the flu. We wanted to separate hype about the flu from messages from people who truly become ill."

To this end, the research team has built a filter with statistical methods based on human language that separates tweets specifically about having the flu. The system can distinguish, for example, between "I have the flu" and "I'm worried about getting the flu," the scientists say.

One benefit of the system, they say, is that it can produce real-time results. By comparison, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which records flu-related symptoms from hospital visits, typically takes two weeks to publish data on the flu's prevalence.

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