‘Flu Near You’ Wants To Track Influenza Trends in U.S., Save Lives

As the U.S. enters flu season, one website hopes to help reduce the yearly influenza-related deaths. And it needs you to help.

Thousands of multi-colored dots light up a map of the United States, each one representing a person who has provided feedback about their health to the website Flu Near You.

The site, which launched in 2011 has been tracking self-reported trends in the presence of flu-like systems from its estimated 80,000 participants. 40,000 of them actively respond to weekly email updates according to Director of the Global Health Threats Division of the Skoll Global Threats Fund Mark Smolinski, one of the collaborative administers of the site.

Flu Near You was created in partnership with the Boston Children’s Hospital’s HealthMap, an expansive globe-spanning project that tracks outbreaks of infectious diseases. Participants who register on Flu Near You are sent a weekly email that asks whether they have had a flu shot and whether they have experienced any symptoms from a provided list of ten potential answers including fever, fatigue and sore throat.

After the responses are accrued, different color dots are attributed to each corresponding zip code in which the participants live. Blue indicates no reported symptoms, orange represents some symptoms and red is an indication of an influenza-like illness, based on the CDC definition of the flu. In the week ending in January 5, 80.9% of respondents reported that they had no symptoms, while 19.1% said they had some and the remaining 3.3% reported they had an influenza-like illness.

As flu season wages on, typically reaching its peak during January and February, Smolinski wants the site to examine the ongoing trends in 2014, particularly observing the overall success rate of vaccinations.

“Can we understand more about the impact of vaccines?” Smolinski said in a phone interview. “I get a flu shot every year and nobody ever comes back and asks me whether I have the flu. So by participating in something like Flu Near You, where you actually document whether you had a vaccine or not, and then when that’s matched up with the symptoms, we may be able to start getting real numbers about how effective the vaccine is each year.”

Flu Near You also provides locations where people can get flu shots based on their zip codes, in an attempt to reduce the yearly influenza-related deaths in the United States, which the CDC estimates is sometimes as high as 49,000. Smolinski wants the site to serve as an informational tool for citizens, demonstrating where the outbreaks of disease are occurring, providing comparison between self-reported statistics against Google Flu Trends and CDC data as well as the locations of available resources for treatment.

During the 2012 flu season, one which resulted in over 22,000 deaths in the United States between the end of September and the end of the year alone, Smolinski saw the participation in Flu Near You grow exponentially. He partially credits this activity boon to the website’s appearance on CNN.

Smolinski doesn’t only want the site to gain attention, but rather to keep a consistent set of participants every year in order to provide a viable and accurate health resource.

“The reality is the system will be the most useful if people remain in the system,” Smolinski said. “Getting big hits and people joining it is good for awareness, but the utility of the tool is really to keep them long-term.”

In order to accomplish this, Smolinksi hopes to incentivize people to consistently use the site by integrating it into the workplace and even getting younger people like Girl Scout and Boy Scout troupes to participate.

As the first flu deaths of the season are being reported in the U.S. and a patient in Canada became the first North American to die from avian flu, Smolinski’s tool may be more important than ever.

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“It’s these respiratory diseases that really worry us because they can spread around the world,” Smolinski said of influenza. “So why aren’t we trying to do more to really learn everything we can about this disease we experience every year?”