Early Warning Signs of Infectious Disease Outbreaks Appear on Social Media First

December 13, 2017 by Beth Peterson

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December 12, 2017 / Contagion® Editorial Staff

Do you want to know when the next vaccine-preventable outbreak will hit? You might want to check social media, according to a new study from investigators at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, who determined that predicting the next outbreak may be possible by analyzing trends on Twitter and Google.

Whether they love social media or hate it, the truth is that many adults utilize the platform for the latest news. According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 62% of US adults get their news on social media. The nature of social media being what it is, this news is accompanied by commentary from social media users, anxious to share their opinions on the topics at hand. In a perfect world, one would be able to separate the news from opinion; however, these lines have become increasingly blurred to the point that bias has even leaked into “real news outlets” spurning the birth of sensationalism and “fake news.”

One of the top news topics is vaccination. Given the ability to reach millions of individuals in one fell swoop of a tweet, the antivaccine movement is booming on social media. Indeed, the top news article of the year for Contagion® in 2016 was on a study that examined how Facebook users expressed pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine viewpoints. The investigators on that study approached their research aware that although the internet has become a useful tool for information gathering on health issues, it has also become an “echo chamber” where misinformation about vaccines and anti-vaccination attitudes have spread. This has led to a decrease in vaccination rates and in some cases outbreaks of diseases once largely eradicated.

Now, in 2017, the Waterloo investigators are echoing that sentiment with their research and taking it one step further by suggesting that analyzing this information can help to predict outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

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