Tracking H1N1: An Exact Science?

A Seattle-area tech company called Veratect is being given a lot of credit when it comes to early warnings about the spread of swine flu or H1N1. Using a combination of real and virtual intelligence-gathering, Veratect reportedly sent the first alerts to the Emergency Operations Center and Global Disease Detection Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's a theory that's echoed in an article from the Associated Press and a timeline of the outbreak in the Washington Post. In the latter example, the system designed to detect for such outbreaks is criticized for not reacting fast enough. It begs the question -- is there a bigger role for technology to play in these types of medical emergencies and how can the reliability be improved?

This morning I had a conversation with Marty Pfinsgraff, the chief operating officer at iJet, which is a rival/competitor of Veratect. He was quick to point out that while the CDC is a client of theirs and iJet also provided early indications of the flu uptick there are steps that need to be taken to verify any outbreak from a strictly diagnostic standpoint. Their information is taken from a variety of sources including blogs (mainly written by physicians), specialists, listservs, healthcare professionals on the ground, etc. He stopped short of saying the CDC didn't react fast enough but said the process could still use some refining. (Incidentally, iJet doesn't just focus on medical trends but also security, energy, travel, etc.)

On a related note, Google has created the Experimental Flu Trends for Mexico site. I spoke with the creators and they're attempting to filter out search results that are prompted by curiosity and cull only the ones related to people with actual flu symptoms (they also emphasized the word "experimental"). It's similar to the Google Flu Trends project announced late last year. It's worth noting that in the Mexico chart all types of flu are lumped together, and the Google engineers admitted that it's a different process since fewer people in Mexico might have access to computers or conduct searches for flu medicines, for example. But they're confident that the trend line is accurate and corresponds to the geographic outbreaks. Granted, this is more of a look back than a look forward but Google says it may be another tool for medical professionals to assess when/where it all started.

Finally, be on the look out for any swine flu scams. As we've seen in the past, if it's a popular subject online then you can bet the thieves and vultures will quickly swoop in.

Until next time, stay connected.
  • Daniel Sieberg

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