April 30, 2009
April 30, 2009 - How hot is swine flu traffic on Twitter? A recent survey from Nielsen Online put swine flu at 2% of all Twitter conversations, making it an even bigger topic than British singing star Susan Boyle.
But don't believe every tweet. Public health experts say the Internet can be an important source of information on the H1N1 virus, but you need to know who's at the helm. "In the current swine flu situation, some [sources] are alarmist, where others present a more balanced picture of concern," says Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, director of communicable disease control and prevention for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health.
The good news is that a growing number of government and academic organizations are employing an array of social media tools including Twitter, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, podcasts and even widgets -- online sources of continually updated information -- that offer reliable information as the outbreak unfolds. Los Angeles County, for example, has created a YouTube channel for public health officials and regular citizens (youtube.com/lapublichealth). UCLA Medical Center has a dedicated news page on the outbreak, and webmasters at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have created a Twitter feed (twitter.com/cdcemergency) and a swine flu widget -- the green box on the HHS ( www.hhs.gov) and Centers for Disease Control ( www.cdc.gov) home pages -- which are updated frequently each day.
Health and Human Services has actually been working on its social media tools for several years and tried some out during the recent peanut and pistachio recalls, drawing kudos from the public health community. Widgets created by HHS let websites that link to them provide consumers with continually updated lists of recalled products.
"The information on peanut product recalls was changing by the day and sometimes hour, [and] people had real concerns and needed good information," says Dr. Jane L. Delgado, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. "[The] widget got real-time information into consumers' hands." The H1N1 flu widget should prove just as useful. Some members of Congress have already put it up on their websites for constituents to access.
Public health and Internet experts say consumers should actively pursue vetted sites as a very important source of very important information.
"During a health crisis, it is critical to educate consumers about risk, symptoms and possible treatment options as fast as possible," says Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research, a technology research firm based in New York City. "Waiting for consumers to speak with their personal physician is simply not an option when waiting a couple of days will make a difference [in actions they might take to protect themselves and their families]. The value of a tool such as Twitter, for example, is that the time to connect the content with the reader has been collapsed. Once the CDC decides to publish an update, it goes immediately to those individuals following them and then it 'virally' spreads to everyone in their networks."
It's that viral spread, of course, that has public health officials concerned and advocating for the use of government sites or commercial sites that your physician tags as reliable. "There are misconceptions out there and they can contradict what the government health officials are saying, which can be confusing for individuals," says Dr. Peter Katona, associate clinical professor of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and formerly an officer with the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service. Katona recommends sticking with the resources offered by the World Health Organization (www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/en/index.html), the CDC (www.cdc.gov/swineflu/) and the HHS.
You can also find a full menu of swine flu social media tools offered by CDC at www.cdc.gov/socialmedia, which includes site buttons with prevention information, podcasts with CDC experts and at least two Twitter streams, twitter.com/cdcemergency and twitter.com/BirdFlugov.
Andrew P. Wilson, leader of the HHS Web division's new media team, says followers on the CDC twitter site grew from 2,000 to 36,000 in just five days last week.
"It's important for us to have a voice in these conversations," Wilson says. "By being there [on Twitter] we can help ramp up the discussion and get it out there so it can be shared." And, just as important, says Katona, is that by sharing and using CDC tweets on swine flu, tweeters and readers can be sure they're passing and using accurate information.
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