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Social networks can help prevent disease outbreaks, pandemics

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter greatly help in detecting and containing the spread of pandemics, experts at a global health conference said.

Medical information spread via social networks can be harnessed on a regular basis or especially in times of crisis by analysing trends or mapping it visually.

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This is not too dissimilar from the world-famous Kenyan crowd-sourced online crisis management service, Ushahidi, which collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and SMS. The reports were placed on a Google map, allowing users to spot trends and respond to crises.

This is also known as ‘activist mapping’ — the combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. Ushahidi provides a mechanism for local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a geospatial archive of events.

So to can this be applied to the medical world. The plethora of information on the Internet is almost at a new stage in the detection and prevention of contagious diseases.

“Social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook, which are interactive and contributory, can help in the detection and prevention of pandemics,” said Patty Kostkova, a researcher at London’s City University.

“These networks can also make interactions between doctors and patients more effective,” she said.

Others said tweets and messages from worried local populations could also lead to the detection of emerging pandemics.

“Putting together the mass of information which circulates in and through social networking sites, adding them up and then officially recognising them as important,” said Gayo Diallo, a university researcher in Bordeaux, France university.

“We can also use social networks through Smartphones to treat a patient at home instead of hospitalising them,” he said.

Harvard Professor of Medicine Nicholas Christakis speaking at TED on how social networks predict epidemics. (via PlanetSave)

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