Flu Near You: Finally, a Way to Track (and Avoid) Getting Sick

Takepart.com

It’s that time of year, again: flu season. We’ve all had it. We have vaccines to prevent the flu, antivirals to help alleviate suffering, and control measures like hand washing and social distancing to reduce transmission. But, for a disease that hits every year, influenza retains many mysteries.

Flu is often underreported, so it’s difficult to really understand the full impact of the spread of flu, whether in communities or across the country. How many times have you had the flu, but not gone to the doctor?  Who “counts” you among those who got sick that year? 

We don’t uniformly track who gets vaccinated and whether or not they get the flu that season. The science of vaccines assures us the flu shot is effective in warding off the flu.  But just how effective?  To measure such a question across the population would be a herculean task. To track the spread of flu across the United States each year, at the community level, would be impossible — until now.

Developed in partnership with HealthMap, the Skoll Global Threats Fund is launching Flu Near You this week after one year of testing with the American Public Health Association. Anyone living in the United States who’s 13 years of age or older can sign up at www.flunearyou.org. As a registered participant, each week you will be asked a pair of questions: “Do you have any of the following symptoms?” (with a checklist of 10 symptoms) and “Have you had the flu shot?” 

Once you submit each week, a map pops up which shows how many people are feeling healthy or who might have the flu in your area (anonymously and privately, of course). The tool allows you to compare this self-reported data against Google Flu Trends and official CDC data. It also provides links to useful information about flu, including convenient locations to get vaccinated.     

If it’s effective, Flu Near You will help us better understand how flu spreads and, importantly, engage the public directly in combatting this yearly plague. But Flu Near You as a proof of concept is equally important.  If people are willing to report symptoms on a regular basis, we can expand beyond flu to other diseases.  Moreover, we can move beyond the U.S. to the developing world where the challenges are significantly more complex. Participatory surveillance could become a crucial cornerstone of public health, helping us not only get a better handle on known diseases, but also catch novel diseases when they emerge anywhere on the planet.

It’s an exciting prospect. But it only works if we have extensive participation. So please join us now at www.fluenearyou.org. Do your part to help track and avoid the flu. Do you have it in you?  

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Mark Smolinski is director of Global Health Threats at Skoll Global Threats Fund. He was a member of the investigation team that discovered hantavirus in 1993, and he has served as an advisor to the World Health Organization.

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