In July, the World Health Organization threw its hands up, declared H1N1 the fastest spreading pandemic ever, and said tracking individual cases was hopeless. But that hasn't stopped Google and, now, GE Healthcare from trying.
Both companies claim to have "near real-time" data on flu activity, but their numbers are gathered from very different sources: Google Flu Trends tracks H1N1 infections by counting the number of online searches for flu-related topics, such as "fever" and "sore throat." GE Health care's figures come from the more than 16,000 outpatient care centers using its electronic medical records system. So which one is better?
GE's Centricity EMR system allows physicians to report flu infections instantly, without having to fill out any extra forms. The company's Medical Quality Improvement Consortium program searches those records for flu-related diagnoses and automatically converts them into anonymous daily reports for the CDC (the CDC conducts its own H1N1 surveys through the Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Program, but those reports are only submitted weekly). And in a win for GE, the CDC announced on October 28 that it would be incorporating the company's EMR data into its national H1N1 surveillance program.
Google Flu Trends, which is also updated daily, may be less medically accurate, but its geographic range—20 countries so far—is hard to beat. One thing working in favor of Google's data: Many people infected with the H1N1 flu won't visit their doctor's office since, as they could learn from a quick Google search, the symptoms are generally mild and prescription treatments such as Tamiflu are only recommended for vulnerable populations. With no way to parse the people who are simply trying to find out about the flu from the people who are actually infected, Google Flu Trends remains a wholly un-scientific method of learning about the spread of H1N1.
According to the CDC's most recent report, 672 Americans have died from H1N1 the past two months alone, and 73 of those fatalities were children. And in the end, whether it's coming from GE or Google, the more reliable data on H1N1 infections the CDC and you can get, the better.
[Images via GE Healthcare and Google]