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You and Your Health

Internet Flu Searches May Warn of Outbreaks

Internet Flu Searches May Warn of Outbreaks

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Harnessing this data could aid health care workers, researchers say.

Keeping an eye on Internet search traffic about the flu can provide hospital emergency departments with an early warning system about potential surges in seasonal flu cases, a new study suggests.

This approach may be more effective than waiting for outdated government flu case reports, the Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers said.

They tracked and reviewed Google Flu Trends data for Baltimore and matched that with data on people seeking care for flu at the Johns Hopkins Hospital between January 2009 and October 2010.

The 21-month study found a strong connection between a rise in Internet searches for flu information and a subsequent increase in the number of people with flu-like symptoms coming to the hospital emergency room.

The findings show promise for eventually developing a standard regional or national flu early warning system for emergency department managers and staff, said study senior investigator Dr. Richard Rothman, an emergency medicine physician and researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a Hopkins news release.

The study was published in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Currently, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu case reports issued between October and May are the main way that emergency departments and other health care facilities and providers track flu outbreaks.

However, these case reports are often weeks old by the time they reach front-line health care workers. Google Flu Trends collects and provides daily data on search traffic for flu information, and examinations of this data can be narrowed to specific geographic regions, time frames and other denominators.


More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about seasonal flu.