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Flu Inspires New Strategies to Fight, Slow Spread of H1N1

Ben Cole, for HealthLeaders Media, September 8, 2009

As health officials all over the world continue efforts to prepare for and prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus, new strategies are emerging to help in the fight.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly update of the international situation surrounding H1N1 showed influenza activity increased in the United States, which was attributed to the start of the school year. Disease associated with H1N1 also increased in Africa, and the disease continues to circulate in tropical areas as well, the CDC reported.

There was some good news: the CDC report showed decreases in disease due to H1N1 in South America, parts of Australia, and the United Kingdom. In addition, there have been "no significant changes detected in the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus isolated from persons in the Southern Hemisphere as compared to viruses isolated from persons in the Northern Hemisphere," the CDC reports, indicating that the disease is not getting stronger.

These positive trends have not stopped healthcare leaders from taking innovative steps to control the virus—in some cases coordinating efforts with other providers in their individual countries and even others from all over the world.

The biggest effort, of course, is coordinating the development and distribution of a vaccine once it is available. The "U.S. government is working closely with manufacturers to take steps in the process to manufacture a 2009 H1N1 vaccine," according to the CDC. But as the Chicago Tribune reported today, it remains unknown whether enough vaccine can be produced and distributed quickly enough, or whether there will be delays due to unforeseen complications.

In the meantime, social media sites and other Internet-based systems are helping track the spread of the disease and report outbreaks. These sites offer people up-to-date information on H1N1 trends to keep people informed, and to help them take necessary precautions. Google Flu Trends, for example, provides estimates of flu activity in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States based on aggregated search queries. Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate the current flu activity level in different countries around the world, "providing a multi-national, up-to-date flu tracking system," according to its Web site.

U.S.-based HealthMap also uses a variety of data sources to achieve a "unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases." HealthMap integrates outbreak data of varying reliability, including news sources personal accounts, and official alerts.

Officials are seeking to get consumers in on the act as well. Australia has launched FluTracking.net, a pilot health surveillance system to help detect influenza epidemics. Through FluTracking.net, people send emails updating symptoms which help Australia detect diseases to better protect citizens from the spread of disease.

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