Twepidemiology: Social media can predict outbreaks and guide drug distribution say researchers

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Analyzing tweets could help guide drug supplies during epidemics
Analyzing tweets could help guide drug supplies during epidemics
Tweets warning of Ebola were read by millions before the outbreak was acknowledged say researchers who think the network could be used as an early warning system and guide drug distribution.

According to a study in the Journal of Infection Control ​almost 1,500 tweets about Ebola were published before the Nigerian Ministry of Health officially declared the outbreak in the country on July 24 last year.

Co-authour Sunmoo Yoon from Columbia University School of Nursing told us “we were able to capture Ebola outbreak tweets in Nigeria three days in advance… the dissemination tweets reached over 58 million in the day before the Nigerian Health Ministry reported the first case​.”

The messages discussed Ebola risk factors, prevention, education, disease trends and compassion like those sent by National authorities in other countries. However, in Nigeria most of the tweets were sent by private citizens according to Yoon.

She suggested that: “Social network analysis and associated analytic tools can help to predict epidemics. The distribution of medical supplies can also be supported by application such as Twitter.

In our analysis of Ebola tweets, we were able to identify the source of each tweet to the exact latitude and longitude. This could help medical supply distribution tremendously​” Yoon continued, suggesting that aid organisations establish dedicated surveillance centers.

Pharma market research

Yoon's idea is in keeping with research conducted by sociologist Nicholas Christakis​ who used social analysis to predict an influenza outbreak in a group of students in the US nearly a month before it occurred.

But while twitter may be useful for helping aid agencies distribute medicines and other supplies, for drug manufacturers analysing social networks may be more useful for monitoring consumer response Yoon added.

“Social media can do this sort of [market] research for monitoring consumer response and listening to true voice from the consumers in the pharmaceutical domain.” 

Source: American Journal of Infection Control

What can we learn about the Ebola outbreak from tweets?

Michelle Odlum, Sunmoo Yoon, School of Nursing, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY


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