Doctors track Haiti cholera epidemic on Twitter ? study

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 10 Jan 2012 16:22 GMT
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BOGOTA (AlertNet) - 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.

The research, by scientists at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, showed social media, such as Twitter feeds, and internet-based news, including blogs and news feeds, could help doctors and epidemiologists assess more quickly the cholera epidemic and its progress, versus more traditional ways of monitoring disease outbreaks such as hospital and health-clinic surveys.

“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.

In camps across the capital, Port-au-Prince, more than half a million Haitians displaced by the January 2010 earthquake still live in poor conditions in tents and under tarpaulin.

Since the start of the cholera outbreak in October 2010, nearly 7,000 Haitians have died from the water-born disease and over half a million people have been infected.

Using free information from HealthMap, a web-based tool that monitors disease outbreaks across the world in real time, Chunara and her research team amassed 4,697 reports and 188,819 tweets, which included information in eight languages, relating to cholera in Haiti during the first 100 days following its outbreak.  

The researchers found that estimates gleaned from web-based information and social media, which were available almost instantly, matched very closely with case reports and figures released by official sources often weeks later.

“Informal data can be used complementarily with official data in an outbreak setting to get timely estimates of disease dynamics,” the study’s abstract states.

Experts say one way to improve the response to disease outbreaks like cholera in poor countries is to promote cheaper and more accessible forms of disease surveillance, which can provide an early warning that a crisis is imminent.

“The techniques we employed eventually could be used around the world as an affordable and efficient way to quickly detect the onset of an epidemic and then intervene with such things as vaccines and antibiotics,” Chunara said.

Combating cholera remains a key challenge in Haiti. Around 200 new cases of the disease are reported every day across the Caribbean nation, according to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional arm of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).

More aid needs to be spent on improving access to clean water and sanitation in Haiti, experts say.

“Cholera elimination will require renewed efforts to ensure that safe water and sanitation are provided to every resident,” Dr Jon Andrus, PAHO’s deputy director, told reporters last week.

“Such efforts will require major investment in capacity development and infrastructure for decades. We as partners have failed to ensure safe water and sanitation is provided to every citizen of Haiti. Now we have this opportunity to reverse that failure.”

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)