Research published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found data from "informal" media sources monitoring an outbreak of a disease in a resource-limited setting can yield reliable decision-making data during such outbreaks almost in real-time, the study authors said.
Data from such sources are often available far earlier than traditional surveillance methods that include surveys of hospitals and health clinics, they said.
"When we analyzed news and Twitter feeds from the early days of the epidemic in 2010, we found they could be mined for valuable information on the cholera outbreak that was available up to two weeks ahead of surveillance reports issued by the government health ministry," Rumi Chunara of the Informatics Program at Children's Hospital Boston said.
The researchers used an Internet tool called HealthMap to capture automatically any coverage or mentions of cholera from a variety of information sources -- including news media, blogs and discussion groups -- that occurred in the first 100 days of the outbreak.
"The techniques we employed eventually could be used around the world as an affordable and efficient way to quickly detect the onset of an epidemic and then intervene with such things as vaccines and antibiotics," said Chunara, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School.