The search engine biggie, Google, is putting the power of the Web to use for a good cause- tracking the onset of influenza in the United States through studying patterns in search queries of its users!
Google Flu Trends, a new tool unveiled by the Internet giant on Tuesday, counts the number of flu-related queries on the Google search engine and provides estimates on influenza outbreaks in the 50 US states.
"We found that there's a very close relationship between the frequency of these search queries and the number of people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms each week," Google said in a posting on its official blog.
"If we tally each day's flu-related search queries, we can estimate how many people have a flu-like illness."
Google said it had shared its results with the Atlanta-based US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does its own flu tracking.
"It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems take 1-2 weeks to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly," Google said.
"Together we saw that our search-based flu estimates had a consistently strong correlation with real CDC surveillance data," it said.
The company cautioned that Google Flu Trends, which can be seen online at google.org/flutrends, is "still very experimental," but said it could possibly be a useful tool in preventing the spread of other diseases.
"By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza," the Mountain View, California-based company said.
"For epidemiologists, this is an exciting development, because early detection of a disease outbreak can reduce the number of people affected," Google said.
"Our up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and - though we hope never to find out - pandemics," it added.
Influenza is responsible for some 500,000 deaths around the world each year.