Dr. Google may be a bad substitute for a real physician, but doctors and researchers who track influenza outbreaks are increasingly turning to statistics provided by the powerful search engine to find out when people are falling ill to flu.
Ontario and Quebec are at the peak of a flu season that arrived early this year and appears to be more severe than usual, and experts say Google Flu Trends gave some of the initial warnings that the virus, which kills 2,000 to 8,000 Canadians each year, had arrived with force.
Patients may not get a diagnosis or good medical advice through Google, but each search adds to statistics that warn of influenza’s spread.
“Google Flu gives me a picture of the whole of North America at once. It’s in real time and it’s very useful,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
“Outbreaks come in waves, which make them somewhat predictable, once you know they’re happening. Google Flu has shown to be pretty effective.”
Days or weeks before most traditional public health data, including school absenteeism, laboratory tests and emergency room visits, can be tracked, Internet users start googling “flu” and Google publishes daily charts and colour-coded maps rating flu activity from minimal (green) to intense (red).
The map Friday showed Quebec as the only intense jurisdiction in Canada, with every province to the west and Newfoundland showing high. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were listed as moderate.
Newfoundland’s largest health authority has closed another seniors home to visitors and imposed visitor restrictions at six of its hospitals as it attempts to contain the spread of an influenza-like virus. Eastern Health on the weekend said the latest closure affects the Golden Heights Manor in Bonavista. Seventeen of the health authority’s facilities have either been closed or are under visitor restrictions, and officials are asking the public not to visit health care facilities if they are ill.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has a formal flu tracking system – FluWatch – but it records only laboratory-confirmed cases and it recently went two weeks without an update.Dr. McGeer is a highly respected expert who was in the middle of the SARS outbreak and the H1N1 pandemic, so her endorsement of Google carries weight. As for me, without Google this blog wouldn't exist.