At a time when new infectious diseases are emerging more frequently, social media platforms have become an important source of information.
Along with the increased availability of formal data such as geographical and animal surveillance data, novel technologies, such as social networking sites, are being used to gather, analyze and interpret infectious disease-related data, and are changing the landscape of global infectious disease surveillance, said Abla Mawudeku, chief of the Public Health Infrastructure at Canada’s Public Health Agency.
Mawudeka was speaking during an APEC conference on Friday in Taipei, with participants discussing topics such as changes made to the public health emergency response systems and the innovation and application of health information technology.
The recent outbreak of H7N9 avian influenza has demonstrated a paradigm shift in information dissemination and communication concerning infectious diseases, Mawudeku said, as “countries and international organizations such as the WHO used social media, especially Twitter, as the official medium for information exchange with health officials and the public.”
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) official Chuang Jen-hsiang (莊人祥) said that the CDC has been using Facebook to interact with local Facebook users when the nation was on high H7N9 alert.
However, collecting data for disease detection from social media sites can be challenging, said Mawudeku and US CDC officer Shieh Wun-ju, citing the problem of false reporting of diseases and the lack of a verification mechanism for infomation gathered from social media.
Mawudeku said a more strategic approach was needed and “the development of an algorithm might help.”
Mark Salter, the WHO’s coordinator for the clinical management of SARS in 2003, said that in the case of Twitter, when there is a cascade of tweets of information, it is crucial to differentiate the re-tweets from the original.
The solution may lie in focusing on “more specific areas,” with circumscribed boundaries, before looking at the global level, Salter said.
Boonchai Kijsanayotin, health informatics expert of Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, raised the issue of privacy, saying: “At some point we will have to ask whether it is right for the government to access people’s social networking accounts for information.”
Donald Henderson, a resident academic of medicine and public health at the University of Pittsburgh, has a more humane view on this discussion of information-sharing technologies.
It is important not to “undervalue the expertise of people,” he said, adding what is important is to have someone “willing to listen and dispatch the resources” that really count.