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Searching for your symptoms online could be the most accurate indicator available for experts

Wikipedia could change the way we predict flu seasons

Wednesday, November 5, 2014, 10:48 AM - It looks like Wikipedia may be used for more than just plagiarizing homework in the near future.

The free-access, free content Internet encyclopedia—as described in the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia—is the target of a new study that suggests the data the website offers could be invaluable in the yearly fight against the flu

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Current models of reporting the flu differ from country to country but in most it is dependent on hospitals reporting the amount of patients they have seen over a certain period of time that show flu-like symptoms (temperatures above 37.7, cough).

The issue is that not everyone with the flu seeks medical attention, and many other diseases can show flu-like symptoms and become false positives. Furthermore data is always a couple of weeks old.

To monitor the flu in real time, the CDC has to find alternative methods. Google uses searches for flu and flu symptoms to forecast but that information isn't freely available. The lack of transparency also poses significant problems for research.

But a new study has found a viable alternative: Wikipedia. The idea behind the new study is that the number of people searching for the flu is a good indicator of the spread of the disease. Plus the encyclopedia makes its data freely available to all.

The lead author of the study looked at the historic yearly data attached to the flu article and compared it to previous patterns of the flu and found that the correlation was considerably accurate.

But of course there is always room for improvement. This new technique has a flaw where the tail-end of the flu season tends to be underestimated. Early hypothesis attribute this to the fact that people don't always search for the same information twice even though they can get the flue more than once per season.

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Corrections have to be made to make the model more accurate. In fact, the authors of the study are hoping that the data can be used to extrapolate complex mathematical transmission models, as has been done with atmospheric sciences in the case of weather prediction models

Change to the models couldn't come soon enough. The 2014-2015 flu season is already upon us and it is promising to be a strong one.

While many scientists consider the flu shot a good precautionary measure, a recent Weather Network poll showed that about 57 per cent of people do not get their yearly flu shot.

"Personally, we don't get flu shots in our family," Shandra Flynn. "We are in favour of vaccines for viruses that do not constantly mutate such as MMR, whooping cough, etc. However, we don't see the point of vaccines for viruses that are ever-changing."

On the other hand, some flu shot fans swear by the procedure.

"I have been taking the flu shot for quite a number of years [and] have had no serious bouts of the flu" said Hugh Parks. "Before I had the flu at least once a winter."

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