Thursday, April 30, 2009

Google begins tracking swine flu in Mexico

Experimental project may not be accurate but tries for real-time picture of flu's spread.

Google Inc. is running an experiment of sorts to follow the swine flu's path through Mexico.

The company is trying to compile information from swine flu-related Google searches in Mexico to map out how the disease is spreading through the country.

The Mexican effort is based on Google Flu Trends, which the company launched last November in the U.S. At the time, Google officials said that they had found a connection between people searching for flu information and the number of people who actually have the flu in any given area. "Google Flu Trends may be able to detect influenza outbreaks earlier than other systems because it estimates flu activity in near real time," said Jeremy Ginsberg, one of the engineers on the Google Flu Trends project, during a press conference today.

Ginsberg acknowledged that the new effort, dubbed "Experimental Flu Trends for Mexico," may produce somewhat faulty data because of the lack of available current information from the Mexican government.

"While we would prefer to validate this data and improve its accuracy, we decided to release an early version today so that it might help public health officials and concerned individuals get an up-to-date picture of the ongoing swine flu outbreak," said Ginsberg in a blog post that also went up today. "Our current estimates of flu activity in the U.S. are still generally low as would be expected given the relatively low confirmed swine flu case count. However, we'll be keeping an eye on the data to look for any spike in activity."

The swine flu has been spreading -- and spreading fear -- across the world in recent days.

Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its pandemic alert from 4 to 5, the second-highest level. reported that Dr. Margaret Chan, the U.N. agency's director general, said the decision means that all countries should "immediately" activate pandemic preparedness plans.

Swine flu, a highly contagious respiratory disease, has a mortality rate of between 1% and 4%, according to the WHO. While initially spread into humans by contact with pigs, the virus then mutates and spreads from human to human.

As of 5 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, The Washington Post was reporting that the U.S. had 91 confirmed cases of swine flu, and there have been 367 confirmed cases in Mexico and nearly 500 across the world.