Apps aiming to track H1N1 outbreaks may mislead publicThe digital tools could open the door to mass panic from unreliable or false reports
By Deborah Yao
The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA — 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 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. After all, the public is often unfamiliar with medical terminology and can mistake ordinary colds for more serious illnesses such as the swine flu. And there isn't ample evidence that people are actually changing their behavior as a result of these tools.
Ultimately, the tools may be no more than a fun way for people to connect - not entirely useful, perhaps even misleading.
Still, the more than 100 swine flu apps for Apple Inc.'s iPhone, either free or for a fee, may mollify some 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.
The new strain of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, claimed more than 11,000 lives and required the hospitalization of some 250,000 people, more than the number in a typical flu season.
If such an outbreak could be identified quickly, people could be warned about it sooner and help limit its spread.
That's why 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 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, HealthMap plans to tweak its system to get information out even faster the next time.
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.
Whether these efforts prove useful is another matter.
"In general, having more information is better than less," said David Bell, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But there's a danger that "the information gets transmitted over and over and the story changes."
Some swine apps
CDC News Reader offers the federal agency's swine flu updates, articles and travel notices.
SwineAware links to swine flu statistics and briefings from the CDC and the World Health Organization.
Swine Flu 101 provides the latest news and a state-by-state list of cases and deaths.
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