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Tweeting health woes could help fight disease

PBS News Hour, August 10, 2011

That "viral" metaphor for social media just got a little more bona fide. According to a recent slate of independent studies, Twitter can accurately track the spread of a virus or disease -- and do it much faster than traditional surveillance methods. From Iowa to Brazil, researchers are discovering there is a distinct association between complaints, worries and random rants on the social media site and the spread of medical issues as wide-ranging as the flu, dengue fever and pollen-induced allergies. "By looking at the Twitter stream, we were able to track the public concern in real time about vaccination issues, travel issues and responses to public health," said Philip Polgreen, MD, an associate professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine who used Twitter to track the progression of the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009.