Your Facebook and Twitter accounts may be more useful than you think. A new study shows that social media has recently become a very useful tool for public health officials to identify and combat outbreaks of infectious disease. “Social media and other data sources can be tapped for insights into how people will react when faced with a new disease control measure or the threat of infectious disease,” said study author Chris Bauch to TIME.
For example, if a celebrity tweets criticism of a new vaccine, the study shows that vaccine coverage will drop. Though the tweeting celebrity may not have any expertise at all in the medical or disease-prevention fields, Twitter users are likely to take their advice anyway.
Conversely, social media can be used to promote disease-preventing habits like sneezing into an elbow as opposed to a hand, which was promoted during the swine flu pandemic in 2009. The authors of the study argue that social media is invaluable for public health professionals to gauge how people will react to outbreaks of disease and to counteractive measures like vaccines.
In addition to predicting public reactions to outbreaks, social media is useful in promoting public health initiatives. Recently, the Boston Public Health Commission initiated a very successful public health social media campaign for a “Soda Free Summer,” asking Bostonians to pledge to give up soda and sugary drinks for the summer. The campaign received almost 30,000 views online and almost 23,000 hits on its Facebook ad. You can follow the BPHC on Twitter at @HealthyBoston.
Students at the University of Rochester developed a method of tracking food poisoning outbreaks via social media. They tracked tweeters’ use of key words like “stomachache” and “Pepto-Bismol” in order to find the epicenters of food poisoning outbreaks. The system can find all of the restaurants within 25 meters from where the person tweeted in order to guess which restaurant might have caused the illness.
Sickweather.com is a similar website that uses social media posts to track illness through an interactive map of the places with the most hits. The day-by-day maps show just how quickly diseases like the flu can spread.. Users can plug in their locations and Sickweather tells them what to look out for.
According to Sickweather, sore throats and fevers are currently going around Chestnut Hill. These sites are perhaps not recommended for germaphobes. Few may have predicted the utility of social media for public health and disease control. All that’s left is the question: What spreads more quickly, a cold or a status update?
Featured image via sickweather.com