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Digital Epidemiology as a tool against H7N9

on Fri, 07/05/2013 - 09:37

A recent paper on the New England Journal of Medicine highlighted some of the features that make H7N9 – the bird flu virus now circulating in China – a healthcare case that deserves attention. The first is a diffuse lack of immunity against this strain, due to the scarce exposure on a large scale to hemagglutinin 7 (H7) and neuraminidase 9 (N9) antigens. The second are some genomic signs of adaptation to mammals. The third is the difficulty to spot it in bird flocks, due to its low pathogenicity in birds.

H7N9 is thus a potential danger that requires new and powerful tools, and digital surveillance seems to be one of the fittest, since it may take advantage of the widespread use of the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, thus helping public health officials in many ways: by allowing early detection of disease outbreaks; by keeping a continuous monitoring of disease levels; by assessing disease-relevant health-related behaviors and sentiments; by granting an additional method for examining the period that precede an outbreak.

The paper also discusses some cons of such an approach, but conclude that digital disease surveillance may be a part of the response to the new health challenges that we are facing nowadays.