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Dr. Gwenn: Can "Dr. Google" Track The Flu?

By Expert
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I saw the headline yesterday and heard the reports all over the news today but had to check it out with my own eyes: Google claims to be able to track the flu 10 days earlier than the CDC flu surveillance map we all know and love by now.

Eventually there will be so much flu activity that both maps will look exactly the same but right now flu activity is relatively low nation-wide. So, comparing the two maps is rather eye opening, at least to me.

Here's what you need to know about each type of tracking map so you know what you will get from each:

Google Flu Trends:

* The map is very interactive: you roll over the state and a nice description emerges.
* The map relies on shades of colors which deepen as the "activity" worsens.
* The information is extrapolated from search terms which, interestingly, seem to be ahead of the CDC data by 2 weeks. Here's a link to a page that demonstrates Google compared to CDC from last year's flu season.
* Google admits this system is still "experimental" so we have to be open to the fact that search trends may change and the strong interest in everything flu may be creating an interesting coincidence.

CDC Flu Chart:

* The CDC maps lag behind real-time due to the time needed to collect and evaluate the data. For example, this week's map is for week ending November 1, 2008.
* The data presented are accurate and not extrapolated so we can trust what the map reflects and not worry about the type of error that could be present with Google Flu Trends.


Time will tell whether Dr. Google will be able to keep pace with the CDC as we move forward during this flu season but early signs are promising and the implications in clinical medicine very powerful.

But, this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.