Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Using HealthMap to detect and monitor disease

How can social media be used to detect and monitor disease?
Now I will give you some example of how we can use social media to detect and monitor crises.
One of the projects I want to bring into your attention is called HealthMap. HealthMap is a project from the Harvard Medical School where they are tracking online news about disease, about symptoms, from all over the world. And this is done as part of a disease surveillance project called HealthMap. In there they are tracking in many different languages report from newspapers about outbreaks, disease, to try to identify where there is an outbreak, even before a health authority had reported it.
And actually, as you can see in this slide, it was quite long before the official announcement of the Ebola to outbreak that they identified, in one Guinean newspaper, people reporting about some disease that actually was provoking bleeding– nasal bleeding, et cetera– that actually was the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, and was quite before the health authorities already announce it. So it was long before. And this can give you a hint before the crisis happens, so that you can try to contain as soon as possible. What happened also in West Africa– there are quite many doctor actually say that it was very hard to control death rate because of the lack of information.
And they have been arguing in a paper that was published in The Lancet using a smartphone-based health application will help to better monitor the status of the outbreak and better plain their resources. In this side you have an example from Big Data. The published an article in the BBC News about how it’s possible to use the information about the subscriber in the phones to try to monitor the movement of the population. What they managed to do, actually, was to try to identify those measure to restrict the movement of people across the border actually had any effect. Because when you have the phone, it’s connected to antenna. And that information is stored.
So if you cross to the other country, then you change antenna. And if you relate all the data of everybody who is using their phones, you may have a very good picture of how the population is moving around. That has been actually quite useful also in the Ebola outbreak, although the mobile phone penetration is quite low in that country.
Now I will give some example of a miscommunication around the Ebola crisis. One of the very big issues, actually, has been fake news. There are people creating rumours, whether on purpose or not, about the Ebola. You have to in search what a message that doctors have got from India that was saying that there was an outbreak of Ebola in India, which was not true, and also some natural remedies for that, which are not working at all. And those type of news have been spreading all over. On the right side you have the a fake front page of a Spanish newspaper. So somebody took a screenshot of the newspaper and then edited the headlines.
So actually the fake headline said that there is an outbreak case in a university. That was actually not true. The university made an announcement that there is no Ebola in the university. But so you can imagine, pretty much no students went to class or exams because they were afraid of the Ebola case.
And in a published paper, a Professor with Elia Gabarron they made a study on Twitter of misinformation. And they found actually that 40% of the Twitter regarding ebola– they were containing fake stories, like natural remedies, or any type of misinformation. This was actually quite problematic. Because there are some story that they found in Nigeria one rumour about the use of salty water to prevent and to cure Ebola was circulating. And people with kidney problems were drinking salty water. As a result, some of them died. That was in Nigeria. And then you have to think also that sometimes miscommunication is created on purpose by people who profit.
In this slide the Ebola cure, the nano silver cure, is you have some screenshot from some kind of nano silver solution that can cure many disease. It’s actually not true. But they are selling natural products that can cure ebola. And in the website it say that this is part of a result from a research from the Department of Defence in the US, which is not true. Then they have a social media campaign. They managed to get some attention. They’re even in newspapers and TV. And then they use social media to try to create a campaign about using this natural solution for Ebola.
One of the things that happened is actually some countries in West Africa– they started to import that natural Ebola cure solution, which is not proven at all. And then the FDA actually tried to stop it. And now there is a campaign against the FDA in favour of natural cures for Ebola. And they are making a lot of money on that. They are using social media. They are making videos and everything. However, in this slide you can see actually what you will find in the FDA in the USA. Now they are trying to stop it. The only thing you will find is actually a warning letter.
If you try to compare the media usage of those promoted natural cures versus the reaction from the domain, it’s not very balanced. Actually the guys promoting natural, fake cures for Ebola, or many other diseases– they are using social media much better. One thing that is also interesting is how people are buying domains. Like the ebola.s has been registered by an individual who is trying to sell now the domain. This is an example of a missed opportunity for a health authority who could have bought this website to try to inform people about the Ebola. This is the Spanish domain, ebola.s. But the same happened actually with in the US. It costs only 20 euros.

In this video Luis explains HealthMap, a project from the Harvard Medical School which tracks online news about disease from all over the world.

This article is from the free online

Social Media in Healthcare: Opportunities and Challenges

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now