Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Twitter (And Other Social Media Tools) Help Track Disease Around the World

January 10, 2012

Feeling achy? Not sure if that bump you've had on your leg for awhile is "normal"? What do you do? For those who have access to health care providers, it's still the most popular way to access health information. But, increasingly, "online resources, including advice from peers, are a significant source of health information in the U.S." notes the Pew Internet & American Life Project:

"As broadband and mobile access spreads, more people have the ability – and increasingly, the habit – of sharing what they are doing or thinking. In health care this translates to people tracking their workout routines, posting reviews of their medical treatments, and raising awareness about certain health conditions."

But that's just the tip of the new media/health iceberg.

From live-tweeting during childbirth to crisis-mapping, there are endless roads to pioneer when it comes to the intersection of social & new media and health.  It's why I found the article below so fascinating. Basically, Twitter and other social networking vehicles can be just as credible as more official sources, when it comes to tracking disease epidemics like, as the article below notes, cholera in the post-earthquake displacement camps in Haiti.

As Alertnet reports in their article, "Doctors track Haiti cholera epidemic on Twitter - study,"  "Social media and internet-based news were faster than traditional sources of information in tracking the cholera epidemic in Haiti, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene."

With millions of Haitians living in destitution, under extremely poor living conditions in the camps, diseases like cholera, which is a water-borne disease, are spreading. How can officials keep track in order to slow down transmission, and treat those who are infected, in as an immediate a manner as possible?

As the sentence above notes, it's the speed at which the information was made available via social media which also makes the findings interesting:

“When we analysed news and Twitter feeds from the early days of the epidemic in 2010, we found they could be mined for valuable information on the cholera outbreak that was available up to two weeks ahead of surveillance reports issued by the government health ministry,” said Rumi Chunara, the study’s lead author and research fellow at Harvard Medical School. [Editor's note: emphasis mine]

The article cites web-based tools like HealthMap which "monitors disease outbreaks across the world" in real time. The researchers mined the tool for information on the cholera outbreak (including an incredible 188, 819 tweets, and information in eight languages) available almost immediately, on the web.

To read the whole piece, head over to
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