CDC versus Google Trends

Influenza is capturing a lot of media attention this week. Boston declared a public health emergency, activity is widespread in all but two states, and I’ve heard reports of sporadic shortages (of masks, lab testing supplies, pediatric oseltamivir preparations, etc.). Meanwhile, Google Flu Trends (which tracks flu activity via internet searches) has been “blinking red” for several weeks. This Slate piece asks an interesting question: should we be paying more attention to the Google data, or….should we have paid more attention to it as the trend line started ramping up in late November? I suppose the answer depends upon what we could have done earlier to blunt the impact of what the CDC predicts to be a “moderately severe” flu season. Push the vaccine more aggressively, and otherwise get a head start on local preparation, including supplies of masks, antivirals, vaccine, etc.? Promote social distancing or provide advance warning against presenteeism (both at work and school)?

I can’t conclude this post without pointing out that our colleague, Phil Polgreen, published his work on influenza prediction using Yahoo search data before the oft-cited Google paper was published. Phil followed this with some crazy-good Twitter work, too. Credit where credit is due, and all that.


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