The Search Virus: What Your Online Activity May Say About Your Viral Load

Posted by at 4:58PM

Solve this riddle: Student A sits in Humbio 151: Introduction to Epidemiology (i.e. the study of disease outbreaks), listening to a representative from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) discuss how his organization conducts epidemic surveillance.  Student A’s eyes are drooping slightly due to sleep deprivation, a consequence of her participation in the hallowed “Full Moon on the Quad” celebrations the night before.  Between bleary-eyed blinks, Student A decides to Google “flu shots” and “become effective.”

The question: does this student have the flu?

Okay, let’s be real.  If I didn’t already lose you back at Intro to Epidemiology, you are probably thinking “WTF? That makes no sense” right about now.  You probably think you don’t have enough information to answer that question.  And that’s where Google comes in.

That’s right, it’s the G-word.  The giant Mecca of search engine has the answers again.

Let’s break it down.  Here’s what we sans Google know: Last night at Full Moon, Student A was likely exposed to massive quantities of bacteria, viruses, and a variety of scarring mental images.  Her Google search terms suggest that she only recently received a flu shot (I’ll give you a hint: it was yesterday) and she wants to find out if she is successfully vaccinated yet.  For those of you who might care to know, the flu vaccine takes approximately 2 weeks to kick in (it isn’t lookin’ good for Student A).

But here’s the missing link that the average blog reader doesn’t know but Google does: what is everybody ELSE searching online?

Allow me to introduce you to Google Flu Trends (also known as the hypochondriac’s newest enabler).  The brainchild of Google Insights (which tracks how the volume of specific search terms is distributed geographically, seasonally, etc), Google Flu Trends tracks certain flu-related search terms to estimate when and where flu outbreaks are likely to occur.  So, to solve our riddle, all you need to do is pull up Flu Trends in your browser, zoom in on California, then on San Jose (sorry Palo Alto, you don’t qualify with your puny population) and look at the predicted flu levels based on search terms.

BAM.  The reult?  LOW.  Seeing this, Student A does a victory dance in her chair, much to the displeasure of the CDC representative who is still talking to the class about lime disease outbreaks.

Blissfully ignoring her professor’s warning about applying statistical generalities to the individual, Student A breathes a sigh of relief.  Her poor planning and free-spirited promiscuity are unlikely to result in the flu any time soon (I’m aware all you statistics peeps are groaning in agony as this flawed logic, but roll with me here).

Now jump back a year to 2009.  Same situation.  Student A looks up Google Flu Trends for that year.  RUH ROH!  Flu levels predicted to be well over “high” (Swine Flu FTW).  Looks like Student A’s gonna be investing in lotion-infused tissues and cough drops real soon (alright Stanford, I’ll give it to you, you may not have been ENTIRELY wrong to cancel Full Moon last year, but don’t quote me on that).

Congratulations! You gave Betty White the flu. And now she's pissed off.

Moonlit make-sessions aside, Google Flu Trends is just one example of how technology is impacting our knowledge and approach to human health.  Yes it’s not all rainbows and sunshine (Michelle Obama might argue that the 300+ cable television channels you subscribe to are not exactly helping that whole childhood obesity thing).  But it’s undeniably pretty awesome that something like Google Search, which is seemingly disparate from medicine, can reinvent the way we conduct health research.

As I type, this nice man from the CDC is describing the difficulties in accurately collecting public health data (whoops – did I give away the identity of Student A?).  By the time the CDC releases its statistics on flu levels, Student A circa 2009 would have probably infected her roommate, her boyfriend, and that poor old lady who was unlucky enough to sit next to her on the Marguerite.  But two weeks earlier, Google already knew that the flu outbreak was stirring.  Granted, Student A STILL would probably have infected her roommate and her boyfriend, but maybe that poor old lady would have had enough warning to get her flu shot in time for it to become effective against Student A’s snot.

From influenza to gastroenteritis, technological trends can be shockingly predictive of completely non-technological phenomenon.  Of course, you could ask, what’s the point of knowing about the coming plague if it’s still coming?  Mass hysteria doesn’t exactly seem like a great intervention tactic.

That’s where the next generation of health experts comes into play.  Epidemiology used to be about learning the details of an outbreak after the fact and figuring out what when wrong – and, if you were lucky, maybe instituting control measures before smallpox completely wiped out the Aztecs.  Now, with the new information coming in ever more rapidly, humans vs. disease is a whole new ballgame.  Rather than pipetting solutions or running gels in a lab for my final Epidemiology project, I’m searching Google Insights in the hopes of understanding a mumps outbreak halfway around the world.  And yet it’s all biology.  All for the sake of science.  Who would have thunk it?

So the next time you Google “the sniffles,” just think: YOU are contributing the the future of science.  Epidemics around the world are being translated into a few typed words and the Enter button.

Unless of course you’re China (too soon, Google?).


One Response to “The Search Virus: What Your Online Activity May Say About Your Viral Load”

  1. Misha says:

    I take great pleasure, on behalf of the people of Palo Alto, to point out an error in the article above.

    “BAM. The reult? ”



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