Can social media really fight against the spread of epidemic diseases?

With the spread of infectious diseases, such as Ebola and SARS, in the past few years that have gained prominent media attention, it comes to no surprise that the digital community is devising ways to see how social media can participate and potentially remedy the situation. Doctors and scientists who have a special interest in technology are researching ways for civilians to track the spread of diseases and be consistently updated about the nature of the condition.

Although the idea is still in its early stages, there are many existing technology at our disposal that could point us to a solution. For example, Google recently came out with a system called Public Alerts where it enhances the capabilities of Google Maps to show users which parts of the world is undergoing present or potential natural disasters. In addition, geography-driven platforms such as Geofeedia have the capability of focusing on specific areas or regions and gathering social media info from those districts. This means that in the event of an epidemic crisis breaking out in a certain village or town, news outlets and organizations such as WHO could receive live updates and build quarantine and treatment plans around those important information.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 11.16.53 PM
Screenshot courtesy of www.geofeedia.com

Perhaps the technology that is in the forefront of this ambitious plan is the Boston founded health data and analytics company, Healthmap. The company specializes in combing through news outlets and SNSs wordwide in the hopes of finding information that could contain information about a spreading disease or signs of one that is coming to fruition. Co-founder of Healthmap, Clark Freitfeld states,

“We have now, I think, close to 3 billion tweets that we’ve collected … The goal here is really early detection … The earlier you get a handle on the situation, the easier it is to contain an outbreak” (WCVB)

One example in which Healthmap was able to detect signs of a disease early on was the 2009 H1N1 disease, otherwise known as swine flu. Healthmap received an alert a month before media outlets picked up on the news about “an unidentified respiratory illness” (WCVB)

Dr. Bradley Crotty, a doctor at the Beth Israel Medical Center says,

“Our phones are capturing an enormous amount of data, and we’re just leaving a nice data trail” (WCVB)

Personally, I have doubts about how helpful social media could be when it’s used as a weapon against the spread of epidemic diseases. A majority of the investments used to develop vaccines to fight against illnesses operate by a 90/10 rule. This means that often times, “only 90% of medical research is directed toward illnesses that comprise only 10% of the global burden of disease” (Project Syndicate). This can be seen in the recent Ebola crisis. Ebola has existed since 1976 and it began to drastically re-emerge over 6 months ago. However, much of the world was not aware of the disease until it crossed borders into Europe and the United States. And although the United States has done a great job of containing the epidemic, fear continued to spread as news outlets consistently covered the topic at hand. Even though entering the United States helped put Ebola on the map, it also shed light on two issues; the inequality of health care systems between the 99% and the 1%, and the unnecessary fear that spread due to social media’s participation.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 11.23.28 PM
Photo courtesy of Twitter user @EbolaPhone

Both of these issues relate back to social networking services because it demonstrates how companies who wish to acquaint the containment of diseases through social media are providing this platform for the 1%. Majority of these diseases emerge from developing nations who have poor health care systems. Not only is their access to technology low, but also many of them may live in nations that have strong censorship laws. This means that civilians face barriers when it comes to both trying to spread news about an emerging disease, as well as receiving news about which areas they should avoid. In addition, even though Healthmap was able to detect H1N1 very early on, the international community is not willing to pay attention to the issue unless is threatens important member states. Health agencies only wish to invest in vaccines that they believe will be widely used in order for a good return on investment – the sad reality is that these companies aren’t always in it to save lives but for the business.

As much as I believe in social media’s power to spread news, Ebola has been badly portrayed by the media in North America, and SNS has only furthered the stigma and number of inaccurate facts that stemmed from the disease. Yes, it would be great if social media could aid in the control of illnesses and yes, coverage for diseases are important. But when the service only benefits the 1% who are barely exposed to the issue at hand, is it necessary or fair?

Featured image courtesy of lonestarmom2004




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