This Week in Research: Valentine’s Day Dread; Googling the Flu

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In the old days — like, say, last year — hospitals looked to the government to tell them when an influenza outbreak was immanent. The CDC case reports are useful in that they help hospitals prepare for an upswing in sick, contagious patients… but they can be woefully outdated by the time they actually get to the hospitals. A better way to gauge whether an influenza surge is happening around town, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study?  Just Google it.  Well, GoogleFlu it.  The internet search behemoth has started tracking trends in flu searches, meaning that when a person Googles symptoms or obsessively checks WebMD, the site pays attention. And those internet search trends turn out to have a strong correlation with a subsequent rise in hospital admissions of people complaining of flu-like symptoms. Using this model, hospitals can know that an outbreak is coming as it starts to happen — rather than weeks after the fact, as with the CDC reports.

And you thought the holiday season was over! If you’ve been in a drug store recently, you may have noticed that they’re already festooned with Valentine’s Day items, more than a month before that holiday begins. That’s no accident — February 14 is the second-biggest holiday for greeting card retailers, according to the University of Maryland’s Janet Wagner. A full 80 percent of Americans report sending a card to a partner. But it’s not all love and roses out there — UM education professor Ken Rubin estimates that a quarter of kids in a typical classroom are singled out for open rejection by other students; for them, the holiday is just another chance to be publicly rejected. And, as we all know, the holiday can get spendy, especially for men; they spend three to four times as much as women on Valentine’s gifts, says Wagner.



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