WELLINGTON, July 25 (Xinhua) -- New Zealand Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said on Tuesday that a new project is seeking to establish if tracking trends on social media and unconventional data can help predict outbreaks and further improve responses to epidemics.
"We're in the midst of the cold and flu season, so trying to predict outbreaks of infectious bugs is top of mind," Coleman said in a statement.
The Ministry of Health is trialing an innovative approach aimed at improving its response to epidemics by predicting outbreaks earlier. The project uses alternative sources of information to detect trends that indicate the spread of infectious diseases, including social media and a range of historic and current data sets, Coleman said.
"People often talk about being unwell on social media, so trends can be detected on platforms like Facebook and Twitter," he said, adding that picking up on trends could help to put the appropriate measures in place earlier to prevent disease spread, and ensure sufficient stocks of medicines are available.
There is currently an online survey done by the ministry, asking people if they have ever posted information on social media about themselves or their family's illnesses.
The ministry is also harnessing a wide range of data for this project, such as anonymized information about school absenteeism, employee sick leave, pharmacy sales of over-the-counter medicines, Healthline calls and tissue sales, according to the minister.
"Claims that luxury soft tissue sales surge at the start of influenza outbreaks are also being analyzed to see whether not just the sale volumes but the types of products can act as an early epidemic warning," Coleman said.
This project builds on the existing monitoring programs which work well to identify trends in communicable diseases using traditional methods, such as surveillance of lab results and data from general practices, he said.