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Whining wanted: Project tracks flu one sneeze at a time

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Flu Near You, a new tracking system, uses individual reports of symptoms to monitor the spread of influenza.

Getting the flu may be miserable, but if there’s any comfort, it’s in the perverse pleasure of cataloging symptoms. The sneezing, the coughing, the aches and the chills. The sudden high fever. The terrible sore throat.

Usually, finding anyone to listen -- except for spouses bound by duty and a shared mortgage -- is a tough task.

But not this year.

Thanks to a just-launched effort that aims to track the spread of influenza in real time, flu sufferers now have a place where they can whine to their hearts’ content, all the while contributing to the public good.

It’s called Flu Near You, a human sentinel system that uses first-person reports to monitor the illness nationwide. Unlike other reporting systems, it relies on tallies of specific symptoms in specific places to gauge spread and severity of infection.

“We’re actually getting people to tell us that they’re sick,” said John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, with joint appointments at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The project, a joint effort of Children's Hospital Boston, the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association, already has attracted more than 2,000 people willing to report weekly how terrible they feel.

The point, said Brownstein is to speed up monitoring to better be able to predict when, where -- and, possibly, whom -- the flu will strike next.

“Automatically, you’ll see yourself where you are on the map compared to other people reporting,” he said. “You’ll be able to see other people who are sick around you.”


Participants register, and then agree to fill out weekly surveys that ask whether they’ve suffered flu symptoms such as aches, chills, fever and coughing in the past week, or whether they’ve had no symptoms at all. They’re also asked to report whether they’ve received flu shots.

Researchers already know that monitoring behavior can offer a heads-up for impending illness. Google Flu Trends, an analysis based on users’ search terms related to flu symptoms, lets experts detect flu at least two weeks faster than the laboratory-confirmed surveillance system used by public health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Flu Near You could be even quicker, Brownstein said.

Early evidence suggests that a self-reporting system works. In Australia, the FluTracking project started in 2004 and now boasts 10,000 people online every week. Researchers there have used the tool to demonstrate the efficacy of seasonal vaccines and to respond quickly to small communities with high rates of self-reported illness. Ten countries in Europe participate in InfluenzaNet, which tracks illness there.

Organizers eventually would like to see tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of United States users enrolled in Flu Near You, populating the national map with little green, yellow or red pins depending on whether they’re well, showing a few symptoms or coming down with a full-blown case of the flu.

It’s taking a while to catch on, but there are some strong incentives, Brownstein noted. Members of the APHA, for instance, are now competing for $150,000 in prizes for individuals and groups who recruit thousands of flu reporters. The top prize, $25,000 will go to the member who amasses the most users above the minimum of 10,000 surveys. That’s equal to recruiting at least 200 people who complete the survey once a week for 50 weeks in the competition that started in October and runs for a year.

“Actually the nursing association is banding together and they’re way out in front,” Brownstein said.

Ordinary people however, will have to settle for the comfort of complaining to a willing audience -- and knowing their flu symptoms may benefit society as a whole.

“We hope the people recruited into the system are doing it for their civic duty,” Brownstein said.

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