A growing segment of the medical community believes that is a realistic possibility and is increasingly looking at ways to harness the power of blogs, news outlets and social-networking websites to detect disease patterns around the world. Dozens of researchers gathered Monday at a pandemic conference in Toronto to hear about the progress one expert has made toward achieving those goals. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist who works as a researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston, told researchers instead of relying solely on government-based disease-surveillance systems, they should recognize the power of clues coming from individuals on the ground.
Dr. Brownstein and his colleagues have created HealthMap, an ambitious website and mobile application that constantly trolls the Internet for emerging outbreaks of the flu or a new respiratory illness. HealthMap uses news sites, eye-witness reports, government disease-tracking systems, wildlife disease-surveillance websites and other sources to identify new patterns in disease and where they are occurring. The scope is impressive; HealthMap automatically scrolls through tens of thousands of websites an hour, Dr. Brownstein said. ‘We’re constantly mining the Web,’ he said. Researchers recently used HealthMap to illustrate on a world map the location of new cases of E. coli infection as they were identified, following a massive illness outbreak that was eventually linked to German sprouts.