If you feel like this year’s flu season is a rough one, that’s because it is.
CBS News recently reported that this year’s flu virus is dominated by a particularly nasty strain, H3N2, which has reached almost every corner of the country, causing prolonged illness in many and in some instances, death. The very young and the elderly are particularly vulnerable, and this year’s vaccine may only be about 30% effective because H3N2 tends to mutate quickly.
Citizen scientists across the country are helping scientists better understand the illness and how it is moving through the population by participating in a research project called Flu Near You.
Volunteers with the project register as participants and then take a few seconds each Monday to respond to an e-mail prompt asking them to answer a few multiple choice questions about how they felt during the past week.
They enter their “health report” using the Flu Near You website or mobile device app. Participants also can submit data about their family members, and can submit data year round to help identify emerging outbreaks.
The program is free and anonymous and is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada aged 13 years and older. Over 200,000 people have registered to participate so far, said Colleen Nguyen, a public health project manager with Boston Children’s Hospital.
Studies show that capturing data directly from the community through efforts like Flu Near You sheds important insight on flu illnesses within communities, particularly capturing data from those who do not seek healthcare when they are sick, she said.
Flu Near Your also allows participants and the public to view colorful local and national health maps created right on the platform to see how the illness may be spreading to their communities.
This is a lot faster than the traditional method of collecting data from healthcare practitioners, which often involves a delay in data collection, analysis, and reporting.
With Flu Near You, the community can see data in real time and take preventative actions such as getting the flu shot (which still decreases the spread of the disease, even at 30% efficacy), washing their hands more regularly, staying away from infected people, and taking anti-viral medicines when necessary.
In addition, Flu Near You partners with public health stakeholders such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the Council on State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE), and local health departments across the United States to increase awareness and insights about influenza-like illness (ILI) activity in their jurisdictions.
The health department in Maricopa County, Arizona, is one of these partners.
“Health departments conduct ongoing influenza surveillance and publish weekly influenza reports that compile data from emergency departments, laboratories, and schools,” said Kaitlyn Sykes, CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellow with Maricopa County Public Health.
Flu Near You helps her county collect a much wider data set than these traditional methods, she said.
“During the 2015-2016 flu season, 46% of Maricopa County FNY users with influenza-like illness symptoms did not seek healthcare,” she said. “We would have never known these people were sick had we relied on our traditional data sources because the health department relies on data from healthcare providers. “
Another benefit of Flu Near You is that it provides data quickly, she said.
“Through a preliminary evaluation of the data, we found that the Flu Near You dataset identified an increase in influenza-like illness two weeks before our traditional healthcare datasets,” she said. “We are still exploring whether we can take action on FNY’s earlier signal, but the finding is promising.”
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