Trends in internet influenza

20 06 2009

At the start of the month, Google announced it was expanding its search-engine-based epidemiology surveillance tool, Flu Trends, to process information originating from Australia and New Zealand (previously it was processing U.S. statistics and a beta Mexico version).

The tool is based on there being a correlation between the number of people typing in influenza-related keywords into Google and the actual number of cases of influenza in the country. Google claims it is supported by historical data. The concept does make sense: when you are your family are sick with flu-like symptoms, that would be the time you are more likely to search for information on possible causes – Thus people searching for “flu” could reflect the cases across the country.

But I was skeptical at how well it would work in a pandemic. Google’s data might hold up for its recorded history, but that does not extend back to 1968-9 – the last influenza pandemic. A pandemic not only involves the potential for an increased number of influenza cases and increased severity of those cases, it also means an increased amount of media coverage and public awareness. When I last looked at Google Trends and health searches, I saw a possible link between media coverage of Kylie Minogue and Australian searches for breast cancer. There is a good reason to suspect that the statistical relationship between search terms and disease cases will not hold up during pandemic conditions. This concern is not addressed appropriately in the Flu Trends FAQ.


Google Flu Trends Data, as of 20 June, 2009. Click for larger image. A - US 2008/09 search data c.f. historical B - Australia 2008/2009 data c.f. historical (2008/09 dark blue, historical light blue). C - Australia historical data (blue) compared with official epidemiological seasonal ILI (infleunza-like-illness) data (orange)

Google Flu Trends Data, as of 20 June, 2009. Click for larger image. A - US 2008/09 search data c.f. historical B - Australia 2008/2009 data c.f. historical (2008/09 dark blue, historical light blue). C - Australia historical search data (blue) compared with official historical epidemiological seasonal ILI (infleunza-like-illness) data (orange)

Looking at the U.S data, for this past season, it looks like it could be an accurate reflection. And if anything, rather than seeing a spike of search term activity this year, there was not much difference than previous years. In fact, the historic data contains several search spikes that do not exist in this years trends. All this information could either accurately reflect that the influenza pandemic thus far has been little more than out-of-season seasonal flu, or, just maybe, that the increased media activity and awareness have actually actively decreased usage of Google for health information.

Were people being directly channeled towards non-search websites, like Were they getting enough influenza information from other websites they frequent, like news websites? Was there enough offline influenza resources that people did not feel the need to Google to find out more? Or were people just overloaded and desensitized by the mass media hysteria?

I still prefer the Rhiza Labs case-mapping tool. It is much more informative and accurate.


Ethics in media: Diabulimia

14 11 2008

The news is pumping out stories in response to a report “Insulin Misuse for Weight Loss” that claims diabetics have started skipping insulin shots in order to get thin.

I found the story through a google feed at

I tried to find the report itself, but Google is swamped by diabetes news stories at the moment. I was initially perplexed, diabetes is linked to obesity, how can avoiding treatment cause weight-loss? Of course, obesity is only linked to type II (or late-onset) diabetes – which is not treated with injections – type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes is not linked to obesity.

But explanations like this were not very prevalent in the media. When reporting on dangerous self harm behaviour, the media needs to maintain its head and consider the ethical implications of what they write. There is a need to balance their responsibility to inform the public with another social responsibility not to cause further harm. By reporting on such behaviour, and giving in notoriety, can they actually give it some sort of credibility and encourage people to try it out? Ensuring that concepts are explained fully, and are provided in context goes a long way to help this.

Some articles did not even explain the consequences of avoiding injections – which include systemic damage, blindness, coma and death. I found the term “Diabulimia” at this slightly hysteric article. But past the hype, the article actually attempted to explain the rational behind this behaviour. In order to work your body already has to be in a pretty bad state, as it involves dehydration (the weight lost is from water) and muscle catabolism (the wieght lost is from muscle). You are in serious trouble if your body is breaking down muscle for your energy needs.

But I want to highlight this paragraph in the article:

Many people believe word is spreading via internet message boards and chat rooms, where existing diabulimics are encouraging more and more women to lose weight by not taking their required insulin doses. Although the practise of losing weight by skipping insulin injections in not a new one, it seems to have grown out of control with the advent of the internet.

Isn’t the writer herself spreading the story on the internet herself? Are ‘news’ articles and opinion pieces (or even shoddy blog entries) on dangerous emerging social disorders part of the problem? How do you make the difference between raising awareness and excacerbating the issue?

Diabetes Australia is the national peak body for information and support services about diabetes mellitus.

Internet stole my weekend

27 10 2008

My internet is being really narcoleptic lately. So if I conk out completely, please accept my apologies.

I have been subscribing like mad to feeds using iGoogle and Google Reader (I take advice!) and that’s also been sapping my internet time as well.

You can check out my shared reader items here. Which means I may actually have to start providing better content here. Hmmm….

I’ve also created an icanhascheezburger account. So gaze into my awesome lol powers:

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

Venus flytrap video

23 09 2008

via Angel Daniel


Some things never change

13 09 2008

Applying for over 200 jobs did have me getting a little desperate. I think in my final months I applied to be a librarian with the Brisbane City Council – which in this messed up world of certifications I am underqualified for… sigh.

Red Flags - popular in China

Another sign of desperation was I applied for an ESL job.

I was avoiding Japan this time – I was pursuing genuine science opportunities there – and even received some sort of positive response from Piero Carninci’s Bioinformatics lab in Yokohama – but by that stage I had my Quantum Scientific job – and really could not be hassled to move all the way to Japan. Moving to Sydney is already being hassle enough.

Instead I opted for China (Olympics and Communism, how could I lose?). I applied for an interesting ad on SEEK that was asking for not just English teachers, but Science/ESL teachers. I thought this would be a great way to sneak into Science Education without further study.

Pretty soon I got a response from a Dr Charles “Li” Chen at the Shanghai Yulun Education Group, saying how happy they would be to accept me.

Now, especially after having some negative experiences myself working overseas, I am consider myself aware of flags concerning dodgy deals and scams. Several flags went up as soon as I got this email.

(continued below the fold – zayzayem would like to stress that I am NOT suggesting Shanghai Yulun is a scam, just that anyone considering them may wish to research the school further and be clear on their contract arrangements – as they should when considering any job in their native country but especially abroad – consider this cautionary scenario) Read the rest of this entry »