When we're sick, we tend to share our misery with others. For most of human history, we've been limited to family, friends, health providers and colleagues at work or school. But in recent years, we've gained a new option to share our woes in the form of social medias.
We can tweet about our symptoms, share our grievances on Facebook, post photos of our sick selves on Instagram and blog about the long journey back to health. This expansion of our social network has proven to help us emotionally as we cope with the illness and find a way back to normal.
Over the last decade, we've learned there's another benefit from this collective sharing. Public health officials can use these personal stories to gain a better picture of infectious disease outbreaks. The practice of collecting information from social media — initially called infodemiology and infoveillance — has become a recognized method to learn about the spread of disease.
The main benefit of social media searching is the ability to identify infectious disease troubles as they are happening. Most of the time, outbreaks are either past their peak or have ended before public health officials become fully involved. This can impact the ability to investigate, as well as find, recommendations for prevention in the future. Being able to intervene in real time can improve the chances of slowing and stopping the spread.
It began back in 2010 when researchers found the use of social media could help turn back the clock on outbreak surveillance. Using pandemic flu as an example, the team learned they could have identified the outbreak a full month before it reached its peak. This earlier detection would have empowered those responsible for public health and given them a chance to halt the spread.
Since then, social media has proven its value at tracking not just isolated outbreaks, but also fast moving infections. As diseases move from one locale to another, posts from people in newly affected areas can act as an early warning signal to alert public health officials of what is to come. This has proven to be effective for influenza, foodborne illnesses, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (better known as MERS) and Zika.
Using social media alone, 37 of 49 confirmed outbreaks were identified
Now there may be another benefit to the use of social media to track infections: we may be able to identify the warning signs of a rise in antibiotic resistance. This revelation comes thanks to a European group of researchers, who wanted to find out if the power of social media could be used to identify a phenomenon normally determined in the lab. The results suggest there is potential to track resistant organisms through the web.
The team took what they called an exploratory approach to identify the antibiotic resistant organism, Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, in social media discussions and web searches. The first stage involved looking at social media activity in the Netherlands on the subject of this bacterium over the course of 15 months from 2015 to 2017. Not surprisingly, they saw increases in interest at certain times.
With this in hand, they then tried to match these spikes with known outbreaks that occurred during the time period. If they were right, some or all of the confirmed outbreaks would match those moments when MRSA was being given more attention on the web. This would match what had been seen with other pathogens.
When the results came back, the team was pleased to find some harmony. Using social media alone, 37 of 49 confirmed outbreaks were identified simply as a result of spikes in activity. Most of the matched activity came in regards to troubles occurring in hospitals as well as in the general community.
However, the system wasn't perfect, as in some cases spikes didn't correlate with any officially recognized problem. For the authors, this could have meant either a false positive due to public worry or a missed outbreak that never ended up being reported. Unfortunately, there was no way to confirm either possibility.
Despite this concern, the authors determined social media may be a new means to identify antibiotic resistant bacteria. This information can be used by public health officials to warn and provide guidance to the public on the presence of the resistant bacteria in their area.
More from Jason Tetro:
Considering it may take days to properly identify resistance in the lab, this real-time analysis could help to speed up recommendations for treatment. As the authors point out, the process needs to be refined to be more accurate, yet the early warning signal may be incredibly valuable to doctors.
Thanks to the work of these authors and other researchers over the last decade, we now can appreciate the value of sharing our illnesses with the world. While our intention may be to find information or seek emotional support, we now know we may be helping to improve overall public health and possibly assist in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Although this benefit may not console you in those times of sickness, you can be sure the information you share could one day offer you the chance to avoid other infection troubles in the future.
Also on HuffPost: