Cell phones help track the spread of flu virus

college campus
CC BY-SA 2.0 emerille

Cell phones, in particular smartphones, have become the go-to tool for crowdsourced data studies. First responders can see how many people are in an area during an emergency by looking at relay antenna activity and researchers are developing ways to turn smartphones into crowd-based earthquake detectors and air quality sensors. It makes sense -- most of us carry one around everywhere we go and they're loaded with GPS and other sensors that can provide scientists with plenty of data.

What all of these purposes have in common is human health and safety, so it only seems natural that scientists would start to tap cell phones for tracking the spread of illness, in this case, the flu.

Flu season comes around every year and puts the very young and old at risk for more severe illness. It spreads easily among people living in close quarters with low-vaccination rates and busy social calendars -- basically college students. In fact, one in five college students get the virus each year.

Researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina set out to see how tracking students through their smartphones during flu season could show how the virus spreads. They wanted to use the data to predict an individual person's odds of getting sick.

They gave 100 students at the University of Michigan Android smartphones loaded with an app they developed called iEpi that used Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS technology to track where the students went and who they came in contact with from moment to moment. They carried the phones over 10 weeks in 2013 while also recording their symptoms every week online.

If a student reported any common symptoms of the flu, they were given a swab to check for the virus. A computer model then crunched all of the data.

Duke University said, "The model then returned the odds that each student would spread or contract the flu on a given day, and identified the personal health habits -- such as hand-washing or getting a flu shot -- that might help them beat the odds or hasten their recovery."

The model found that students who smoke or drank took longer to recover and that, not surprisingly,when one person got sick, the odds of their friends getting sick greatly increased.

“We didn’t have this kind of personalized health data until a few years ago,” Duke statistician Katherine Heller said. “But now, smartphones and wearable health and fitness devices allow us to collect information like a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, social interactions and activity levels with much more regularity and more accurately than was possible before. You can keep a continuous logbook.”

“We want to leverage that data to predict what people’s individual risk factors are, and give them advice to help them reduce their chances of getting sick."

The study shows that using smartphones to track illness could give users an upper hand in assessing their risk and taking preventative measures to stay well, which would also help protect those around them.

Cell phones help track the spread of flu virus
Flu season will be here before we know it. Scientists say your cell phone could one day tell you your risk of catching it.

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