I’m sure that most people who aren’t living under a rock have heard that West Africa is in the midst of the largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history. At the time of this writing more than 1,000 people have died from Ebola, resulting in a death rate of 50-60%. The epidemic has spread from Guinea to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, and a small cluster in Nigeria brought there through air travel. The New York Times reports that Patient Zero for this Ebola outbreak is suspected to be a 2 year old living in southeastern Guinea who died on December 6. No one knows for sure how he was exposed but these are the typical exposure routes of Ebola. Through exposure to bodily fluids via traditional burial practices relatives and friends were exposed and they then carried Ebola to other areas.
The current Ebola epidemic was first reported about by the WHO on March 25, 2014. However, an online tool developed by experts in Boston (HealthMap) using social media sites, local news reports, and other sources flagged an unknown hemorrhagic fever in the forested areas of southern Guinea nine days before the WHO formally announced the Ebola epidemic.
Prior to the use of HealthMap for Ebola, social media based infectious disease tracking is used for influenza outbreaks in the US (Google Flu Trends), and was used to track people’s movements during the cholera outbreaks in Haiti.
While social media and internet search keywords can provide essential information about an outbreak as it’s happening in real time, it is usually only in hindsight that we are able to see how these methods alerted us to the upcoming reality before the formal methods made the connection. It would be a poor use of resources to track down every possible infectious disease outbreak that may or may not be actually occurring, based on social media alerts. However, it is my hope that with the use of these online tools, we will become better at predicting what is a real epidemic and what will amount to nothing so that early intervention can happen to prevent future epidemics like this Ebola outbreak.