Google Tools Tracking Swine Flu Outbreak

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Google Flu Trends, a Web service provided by Google.org, has been updating itself with data and news stories about swine flu

Google has been tracking the spread of the new swine flu outbreak.

Google’s Flu Trends site, a product of Google.org, has been updating itself with the latest wire reports and provides a search window where people can type in their ZIP code and locate the nearest flu-shot distributor.

Flu Trends also describes how it tracks outbreaks. “We’ve found that there is a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms,” reads an explanation on the site. “Some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening, and are therefore good indicators of flu activity. Our estimates, based on up-to-date aggregated Google search data, may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems.”

However, the site still registers United States flu activity as “low.” Areas of the country affected by the new strain of flu, particularly California and Texas, are also noted as having “low” activity. A graph on the site shows the level of flu-related search activity on a week-by-week basis.

On Google Trends, flu-related topics have appeared on the rankings of most-searched terms, including “swine flue” in sixth place, “CDC.gov” at tenth and “swine flu site CDC.gov” at twenty-first.

Despite the amount of news being generated about the flu, the level of recorded cases remains relatively modest.

This strain of influenza, known technically as swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection and popularly as “swine flu,” has killed 103 people in Mexico as of April 27, with either suspected or confirmed cases appearing in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

According to Reuters, symptoms of the disease include fever, muscle aches, headaches, cough, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. The incubation period for H1N1 is still being debated, but typical flu strains take one to two days to begin manifesting symptoms.

The flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people per year, according to the World Health Organization, although larger outbreaks such as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic have killed millions.

This particular outbreak, however, is the first to manifest itself during a Web 2.0 era in which Twitter, Facebook and other social-networking tools have combined with Google and other search engines to create a “social Web” capable of providing up-to-the-minute information.

Some people have already taken matters into their own hands and started using Google’s collaborative tools to trace out the infection on Google Maps, such as this one, with color-coded pins representing both suspected and confirmed cases of the swine flu. Pins that lack black dots in the center represent deaths.