Dr Craig Dalton, a Public Health Physician and Conjoint Senior Lecturer in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, is looking for people to help with an innovative flu-tracking initiative using social media. He writes:

The Federal Health Department has raised Australia’s pandemic alert level to CONTAIN. There are now cases occurring without any overseas travel or contact with overseas travellers.  I have been reading how quickly Swine Flu spread through Mexico, with each case infecting between 1.5 to 3 other cases – up to double the infectiousness of the usual flu.

As an influenza researcher I was thinking: what if our new online influenza tracking system could spread across Australia as fast, or faster, than Swine Flu – so we could track its spread and detect any changes in its severity?

Flutracking is a weekly online survey of over 7,000 people across Australia that tracks the weekly rate of flu-like symptoms and time off from normal duties among participants.  The survey takes between 5 to 15 seconds to complete and detects the arrival of influenza by comparing the rate of influenza-like illness between influenza vaccinated and unvaccinated participants.

With the emergence of Swine Influenza in 2009 the program will be monitoring the data for a different signal this year – evidence that the seasonal vaccine is less effective than usual – perhaps indicating the arrival of Swine Influenza.

In the first survey of 2009 , 4,232 people from across Australia reported on influenza-like symptoms they had experienced in the week ending May 3rd.

Fever and cough was reported by 3.0% of the vaccinated participants and by 3.4% of unvaccinated participants.  Fever, cough and absence from normal duties was reported by 1.7% of vaccinated participants and 1.8% of the unvaccinated participants.  This is fairly typical of pre-influenza season rates and suggests there is very little influenza activity at present.

Not only does FluTracking monitor the spread of a virus but participants have been recruited using viral online social marketing techniques.

Flutracking.net has mainly been promoted via organisational email systems to large employee groups but individual participants forward invitations to their family and friends leading to a steady increase in participants each week.  1200 people have joined Flutracking in one week, and researchers hope to achieve a goal of 10,000 Flutracking participants in 2009.  In return for their participation, Flutracking participants receive a weekly report from the researchers summarising their analysis of the weeks survey results.

Flutracking.net participants are highly engaged, often emailing the researchers to ask questions about influenza or providing extra information about their illness.

It’s unlike any research project I have been involved in. People call or email us to tell us they will be on holidays and may miss a survey or to ask us to change the answer to a question because they have reconsidered their answer.

FluTracking  was launched in the Australian winter of 2006 with 400 Flutracking volunteers completing a 10 – 15 second online survey about flu-like symptoms each week. In the winter of 2007 this increased to approximately 800 participants, and then over 4,000 people in the winter of 2008. Over 7,000 people are registered to participate in 2009.

Flutracking is a research project conducted jointly by researchers from the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health Service.  The project recently received funding from the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

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