Johns Hopkins Finds a Better Way to Track the Flu

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Google Flu Trends was supposed to revolutionize the way we approached public health in this country. By tracking flu-related search terms across the country, the idea went, GFT could pinpoint where an outbreak was taking place even before people started flocking to the doctor. (I guess the idea was that they’d search “why do I feel so crappy” before they’d finally go in for an appointment.) But by many accounts, that experiment failed. According to an article in the journal Science, GFT consistently and dramatically overestimated the number of flu cases.

There’s got to be a better way — which is presumably why the National Institutes of Health has decided to partner up with Johns Hopkins to create a brand-new center for influenza tracking, which will help identify and track developing viruses. Ideally, researchers will be able to use the data they collect to rapidly identify any new strains that might cause a global pandemic.

Some of the tools they plan to use are:
•Using human cell cultures to determine the likelihood of influenza viruses infecting humans;
•Using advanced computer modeling to assess how well different public health intervention strategies work to slow or mitigate an emerging pandemic;
•Using global modeling to assess a country or region’s risk for an epidemic or pandemic; and
•Developing tactical response training programs for medical support and virus surveillance for a pandemic.

“We are taking a very multidisciplinary approach to all our projects,” says Dr. Richard Rothman, who will be the center’s co-director. “This is a really exciting frontier of global medicine and public health, and it’s fitting that Johns Hopkins is taking a leadership role.”

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