Twitter messages were providing data that would have been a quicker way of detecting and tracking the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti than traditional methods, according to a study  published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
The study found that online social media and news feeds were faster than, and broadly as accurate as, the official records at detecting the start and early progress of the epidemic, which hit Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010 and has killed more than 6,500 people.
The authors used HealthMap, an automated surveillance platform, to measure the volume of news media generated during the first 100 days of the outbreak, and they also looked at the number of ‘cholera’ posts on Twitter.
These informal reports were available online up to two weeks before official government reports were released, implying that they could be used to get earlier estimates of a disease outbreak.
James Wilson, executive director of the Haiti Epidemic Advisory System warned that social media sources like Twitter were often inaccurate and biased towards outbreaks in the capital Port-au-Prince where most of the journalists were based.
One of the study’s authors, Rumi Chunara recognised that informal data sources could be inaccurate but added that they could complement official data in an outbreak to get timely estimates of disease dynamics.
 Chunara, R., Andrews, J.R. and Brownstein, J.S., 2012. Social and news media enable estimation of epidemiological patterns early in the 2010 haitian cholera outbreak. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 86 (1), pp. 39-45. doi:10.4269/ajtmh.2012.11-059
Related news: Haiti: cholera victims demand UN compensation, Sanitation Updates, 08 Nov 2011
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Source: Daniela Hirschfeld, SciDev.net, 09 Jan 2012