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Tracking sales of over-the-counter medicines to predict disease outbreaks

As we've previously written on Scope, researchers are developing new ways to use Twitter messages, Facebook interactions and Google queries to anticipate surges in influenza cases, gain insights into the spread of viruses and track other public health trends. Now researchers are turning to data on sales of over-the-counter medicines in an effort to quickly identify disease outbreaks.

The Atlantic reports:

Data from the [National Retail Data Monitor] show that sales of over-the-counter products like cough medicines and electrolytes actually spike before visits to the emergency room do. The lead time can be significant -- in the case of respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, it was about two and a half weeks, according to one paper. Another study examined pediatric patients at a Pittsburgh hospital and found that over 40 percent of parents had bought over-the-counter meds an average 1.88 days before bringing their children into the ER.

Being able to identify a possible disease outbreak probably won't do much to keep the pathogens from spreading, but it could help prepare first-responders and other health professionals. In 2010, it took weeks for official sources to report details of a cholera epidemic in Haiti that killed 7,000 and infected half a million others. But on Twitter, news of the disease traveled far more quickly, according to a study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Previously: Study shows Google Flu Trends data, patient spikes at emergency departments closely correlated, Facebook app models how viruses spread through human interaction, Mining Twitter data to track public health trends and Following Google Flu Trends, researchers use queries to track MRSA
Photo by levanah

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