FluSurvey: Understanding and Tracking Influenza Trends in the UK

By December 8th, 2013 at 2:20 am | Comment

Winter is here! Check out more winter weather themed citizen science projects at Scistarter.

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Here in the northern hemisphere, by this time of year, the signs of winter are nearly fully developed. Pea coats to defend us from the cold, denuded forests, grasses in gowns of morning white, and, of course, symptoms of the flu (otherwise known as influenza) around our daily interactions. Be it a cough, a runny nose, or untimely sweats, being surrounded by these unpleasant yet familiar symptoms make it seem like the dreaded flu is around every corner.

As it happens, where the flu is and who has it makes a big difference in how we understand the spread of influenza and who might be vulnerable or at risk. FluSurvey UK is one of a few citizen science projects in the world that tracks the movement and abundance of influenza-like illnesses, which is any kind of sickness that looks like the flu but can’t be confirmed without lab work asserting the presence of the virus. FluSurvey participants, however, also add background information from occupation, commute patterns, and socioeconomic status to dietary habits, average contact with old and young people, and whether or not they’ve been vaccinated, painting a vivid picture of the population.

This helps Dr. Alma Adler, who heads FluSurvey and a fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine “uniquely… get information on risk factors for influenza-like illnesses.” The data provided by FluSurvey participants showed, for instance, that train ride actually does not increase your risk of contracting flu-like illnesses since participants who used public transportation actually reported less flu symptoms than those who used private transportation. This was a bit of a surprising find, since influenza tends to be communicated through droplets expelled into the air by infected people, and then sucked in somehow by healthy people. On the other hand, we all also know that children, cute as they can be, are excellent disease vectors as well. FluSurvey showed that people who come into regular contact with children were at a higher risk for influenza-like illnesses and that flu cases rise more rapidly when schools are open than when they are closed. This is good news, considering the kids will soon be on winter break, and people can venture into a cleaner world.

In the past, this kind of analysis would have been impossible. Flu surveillance once had to rely on reports from general medical practitioners and hospitals, which left epidemiologists fumbling for an accurate cross-section of the population. The trouble being that only a subsection of sick people will go to the doctor. Unlike FluSurvey, Dr. Adler says, “Doctors’ reports are not linked to any kind of background information.” And while the data from FluSurvey is only a proxy for the actual presence of influenza, it seems to be robust. Dr. Adler says they “compare [FluSurvey’s] influenza-like-illness peaks to when we know there are peaks in laboratory confirmed flu cases. Generally, our data match up fairly well,” showing that people are reporting flu in the survey when there is honest-to-god flu flying around.

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U.S. map of user-reported data of flu symptoms

While FluSurvey UK is only available to our British friends, it’s a part of the European Influenzanet which has surveys in ten different countries. For those of us in the U.S.A., we have to rely on a similar health map called Flu Near You, which asks people to report flu-like symptoms and monitors influenza but doesn’t collect any other data. This might change in the future, as crowd-sourcing data collection and citizen science is becoming more and more popular in epidemiology. Citizen science could, in theory, provide a study population limited only by the number of people with a computer and access to internet for the same or even a smaller cost.

Data from FluSurvey has recently informed a new UK immunization scheme that targets vaccinations at children (since they’re a major risk factor). It has also partnered with the British Science Association to get more children involved with the project. The CDC has similar flu monitoring systems available.

If you’re in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, you can join FluSurvey UK or find your country’s FluSurvey at Influenzanet. If you’re in the States, Flu Near You is always happy to hear about your illness too.  And if you haven’t yet, remember to get a flu vaccination if you can since, as Dr. Adler says, “That is the only real risk factor you can do something about.”

For more information on influenza, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s information website, immunization scheme, and the government influenza surveillance program, FluView.

Image: DOD, FluNearYou.org


Angus Chen is the managing editor for the SciStarter Blog network which includes the Discover magazineCitizen Science Salon” blog and the Public Library of Science’s Cit Sci blog. He’s also a freelance reporter and producer at WNYC Public Radio on “The Takeaway” with Public Radio International and the NY Times. You can also read his work with Science magazine. He was once a scientist studying geology and ecology, but now spends his days typing and scribbling and sketching furiously.

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