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The NewsHour Has the Flu

This partial world map shows Google.org Flu Trends. Red indicates the most intense flu activity. Orange is moderate, yellow is low and green is minimal. Image by Google.

The NewsHour has the flu. Or a really bad cold. Or some combination of the two.

Not everyone. The super immune among us have escaped it, and they sit smugly at their desks, polishing their good fate — and let’s be honest, carrying the weight of production — whilst the rest of us bemoan the wretchedness of the failed flu shot, which, it turns out, only works some 60 percent of the time.

We are a reflection of the nation here, if Google search terms are any indicator. Google Flu Trends scans worldwide Google search data to estimate flu activity in near real time. Meaning the sheer number of people who type in terms like “flu symptoms,” “flu shot,” or “feel like throwing up,” can tell us a lot about the severity of the influenza virus, region by region. On the worldwide map pasted above, red indicates “intense” flu activity, with orange, yellow and green indicating high, low and minimal, respectively. And whoa there, take a gander at our great nation. Bright red! As in, U.S. is getting sacked with the flu.

Using that algorithm, this ominous graph below has influenza numbers in the U.S. skyrocketing this flu season, compared to past years.

A study published in the journal Nature in 2009 found that monitoring millions of search queries was indeed an effective way to detect flu patterns.

“Because the relative frequency of certain queries is highly correlated with the percentage of physician visits in which a patient presents with influenza-like symptoms, we can accurately estimate the current level of weekly influenza activity in each region of the United States, with a reporting lag of about one day,” the study reads.

That’s not a lot of lag, as estimates go. The interactive line graphs on this page compare Google search queries related to flu with official flu data. In the U.S. and Japan, the numbers are stunningly matched. In other countries, like Hungary, the lines haven’t always correlated, though one wonders if this is merely an indicator of Google usage there.

This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been slow to respond to the indicators, according to this interesting piece in Slate by Will Oremus, who says if Google’s algorithm is accurate, “that should translate to a volume of doctor visits that significantly exceeds that of the H1N1 outbreak in October 2009.” And Google’s figures, he says, “may deserve far more attention than they’ve been getting.”

“Of course,” Google warns, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”


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Jeremy Blackman, Tom Kennedy, David Pelcyger and Patti Parson contributed to this report.

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