Better Flu Response through Technology


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The map to the right is great news if you’re the Republican candidate for the Presidency; however, if it represents the prevalence of influenza-like illness, then not so much.

CNN and other news outlets began reporting on the uptick in flu-related illnesses yesterday. In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency due to the tenfold increase in flu cases when compared to all of last season. While the CDC is unable to report exact numbers of seasonal flu-related deaths, the number often cited is 36,000 annually (the CDC reports a range of 3,000 to 49,000). Therefore, influenza is responsible for approximately the same number of deaths in the United States as is automobile collisions and as much as two to three times more than as a result of a firearm homicide.

Certain populations are far more susceptible than others to serious cases of the flu. A few examples are anyone over 65 years of age, children under 5 years, pregnant women, individuals with chronic pulmonary conditions such as asthma, and anyone who is immunosuppressed. The flu vaccine is extraordinarily safe, with very few exceptions, yet only 42% of Americans elected to receive the vaccine during the last flu season. People give different reasons (and sometimes excuses) for not receiving the vaccine. Many of these reasons are not based in actual science or fact, like the myth that the vaccine will give you flu. ABC has a great compilation of flu fact and fiction here.

Cities like Boston are opening flu clinics all across the city where any resident can receive a free vaccination, but what is the best way to determine where to place such a clinic or where to provide more focused community outreach? U.S. Census data can be easily leveraged to determine the broad demographics (i.e. age) of different areas of a jurisdiction. This will definitely assist in focusing public health activities. However, information related to individuals with other vulnerabilities, such as certain medical conditions is not as readily obtained.

Through a system such as SmartPrepare, which provides citizens with a free and accessible way to create a secure online Safety Profile containing information about themselves and their family members, public health and emergency management officials can rapidly identify individuals and clusters of residents who are more vulnerable to the influenza virus or any other pathogen, for that matter. By easily performing geographically-based queries around conditions of interest, public health can better focus its outreach, prevention, and response initiatives. SmartPrepare can also provide an additional channel for residents to receive education about preparedness, health and safety.

I am thankful for the current media attention to the seriousness of this flu season. Our colleagues in public health could certainly use assistance with relaying the seriousness of the issue. If you made it this far, please:

  • Get vaccinated and encourage your family, friends and colleagues to do the same
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces likely to become contaminated (door knobs and countertops) regularly
  • Stay at home if you are sick and take antiviral medication, if prescribed

See all of the CDC’s flu prevention tips here.

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