Studying the geographical distribution of diseases over the internet is a hot trending topic in digital epidemiology. Epidemiologists have begun to use online data (such as Twitter trends) to track the activity levels of infectious diseases, as social media is a good method of measuring public awareness to disease outbreaks.
A recently published article in Infectious Diseases of Poverty is the first to document the online Chinese community’s reaction to a SARS-like virus (MERS-CoV) in the Middle East and Europe in 2012, compared to their reaction to the bird flu (H7N9) outbreak in China in 2013. Data was collected via Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) by the University of Hong Kong’s Weiboscope project.
This article showed that the reaction on Weibo to the H7N9 outbreak within China was two orders of magnitude stronger than the reaction to the MERS-CoV disease outbreak in the Middle East and Europe. This data indicates that the online community’s reaction is more profound when the disease outbreak occurs within the same country, demonstrating the usefulness of social media in measuring public reactions to disease outbreak information released by health authorities (in this case official press releases of outbreak data by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Chinese government). This article also highlights the fact that social media can be used to measure psychological reactions to disease outbreak on a wider scale because social media provides a large dataset, which can be used to track activity levels of infectious diseases when there is an outbreak.
The Editor-in-Chief of Infectious Diseases of Poverty, Prof Xiao-Nong Zhou (Director of the National Institute of Parasitic Diseases at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) commented: “The psychological reactions of local people to disease outbreak are difficult to record on a wide scale. This manuscript provides a unique method to track the Chinese peoples’ reactions to H7N9 influenza outbreak in 2013, and compare the MERS-CoV outbreak in the Middle East through the most popular internet media (Weibo) in China. This provides an avenue to guide local health authorities to improve their health education information to local people after disease outbreak as quickly and correctly as possible.”