For your datahead enjoyment, a user has added a layer to Google Maps that lets you track cases of swine flu as they are reported. We are still very much at the point of discovering preexisting cases of swine flu, so this will be a lagging indicator, but it’s still fun (and a little unsettling) to see how many cases of the disease have been spotted in the vicinity of Princeton.
A more utilitarian Google widget is Flu Trends, which tracks common search terms that, according to a Nature paper published by the company correlate well with actual disease levels. (These terms include searches for symptoms that are related to flu; as Google points out, you get more allergy searches during allergy season and more sunburn searches during the summer.) This can actually predict disease loads two weeks before health authorities announce new outbreaks.
Considering the hubbub about H1N1, it may surprise you that Flu Trends shows that influenza levels in the US are low and steady. In the media blitz as new cases are discovered, it’s important to keep in mind that the normal seasonal flu causes 36,000 deaths a year. While swine flu is newsworthy because of its potential to mushroom into a full-blown pandemic, in absolute numbers it is still a minor player in the disease world.
While the disease cannot be acquired by eating pork, pig farmers are naturally concerned that calling H1N1 “swine flu” will hurt sales. However, the disease did originate in pigs, recombining with avian and human flu viruses, so it is unlikely that the industry’s calls for it to be redubbed will be heeded. (“Mexican flu” was one suggestion, and I can think of at least one group that would be riled up over the name.)
Update: A remarkable new website allows you to tell whether or not you are suffering from swine flu. This represents a significant step forward for online diagnostics. Get yourself checked out here!