A tap on the HealthMap iPhone application brings up a cluster of red pins on a map, representing nearby cases of swine flu. Another tap brings up a form for ordinary Americans to add to the collection by reporting bouts they have or know about.
HealthMap Outbreaks Near Me is among scores of iPhone apps, along with social networks, Wikipedia and flu-tracking sites, that give consumers new ways to share information, shape conversations and keep tabs on swine flu and other health threats like it. With instant two-way communication unavailable during past pandemics and smaller outbreaks, the public now can help paint a fuller picture of what’s happening and complement the often delayed and restrained announcements from health officials. And though swine flu infections have been waning since October, the apps and other digital tools have transformed the way such health crises will be tracked in years to come. They offer a window into the opportunities — and dangers — that come with the rapid spread of information from everyday people.
These digital tools could open the door to mass panic from unreliable or false reports. Still, the more than 100 swine flu apps for Apple Inc.’s iPhone, either free or for a fee, may mollify concerns people have about health outbreaks because people don’t like to be kept in the dark too long. Take HealthMap Outbreaks Near Me, which has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. By learning of outbreaks nearby, a user can take preventive measures, such as getting a vaccine or washing hands more diligently. By sharing what they know, users can feel the thrill of being the first to give and receive information.
Software developer Clark Freifeld and epidemiologist John Brownstein started HealthMap in 2006, first as a Web site before introducing apps for the iPhone in September and for mobile phones using the Android operating system later. The project, housed at the Children’s Hospital Boston and funded primarily by the Google.org foundation, automatically scours the Web for clues to a new pandemic. Users can also submit reports on cases in their areas, to supplement reports that local health officials send to federal agencies.
Because the reports from local officials have to be verified, they take longer to reach federal agencies and ultimately to reach the public. Although HealthMap tries to verify each user-submitted report, it doesn’t do so as vigorously. It’s willing to take the chance that some inaccurate information slips through so that all the reports, good or bad, get out more quickly. Having learned from experiences with swine flu, it plans to tweak its system to get information out even faster the next time. That includes looking for patterns in the symptoms reported by groups of people in an area, rather than waiting for an individual to report only cases confirmed with a doctor.
Meanwhile, the CDC News Reader iPhone app, created by a company unaffiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers the federal agency’s swine flu updates, public health articles and travel notices.
Another, SwineAware, links to swine flu statistics and briefings from the CDC and the World Health Organization. Mark Peterson, a 23-year-old iPhone app developer from Newark, N.J., created Swine Flu 101 to provide the latest news and a state-by-state list of cases and deaths.
Swine flu “is the first pandemic to use digital tools,” said Ann Aikin, a social media strategist at the CDC. The CDC tries to respond to errors it sees online. Early in the swine flu outbreak, for instance, some people on Twitter cited eating pork as a risk. The federal agency tweeted back: “You can NOT get swine flu from eating pork.”