iPhone applications are a helping hand in fighting pandemics

Transform ways consumers learn of health threats

By Deborah Yao
Associated Press / February 16, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA - A tap on the HealthMap iPhone application brings up a cluster of red pins on a map, representing nearby cases of swine flu. Another tap brings up a form for ordinary Americans to add to the collection by reporting bouts they have or know about.

HealthMap Outbreaks Near Me is among scores of iPhone apps, along with social networks, Wikipedia and flu-tracking sites, that give consumers new ways to share information, shape conversations, and keep tabs on swine flu and other health threats like it.

With instant two-way communication unavailable during past pandemics and smaller outbreaks, the public now can help paint a fuller picture of what’s happening and complement the often delayed and restrained announcements from health officials.

And though swine flu infections have been waning since October, the apps and other digital tools have transformed the way such health crises will be tracked in years to come. They offer a window into the opportunities - and dangers - that come with the rapid spread of information from everyday people.

These digital tools could open the door to mass panic from unreliable or false reports. After all, the public is often unfamiliar with medical terminology and can mistake ordinary colds for more serious illnesses such as the swine flu.

Take HealthMap Outbreaks Near Me, which has been downloaded more than 100,000 times. By learning of outbreaks nearby, a user can take preventive measures, such as getting a vaccine or washing hands more diligently. By sharing what they know, users can feel the thrill of being the first to give and receive information.

The new strain of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, claimed more than 11,000 lives and required the hospitalization of some 250,000 people, more than the number in a typical flu season. If such an outbreak can be identified quickly, people could be warned about it sooner and help limit its spread.

That’s why software developer Clark Freifeld and epidemiologist John Brownstein started HealthMap in 2006, first as a website before introducing apps for the iPhone in September and for mobile phones using the Android operating system later.

The project, housed at the Children’s Hospital Boston and funded primarily by the foundation, automatically scours the Web for clues to a new pandemic. Users can also submit reports on cases in their areas, to supplement reports that local health officials send to federal agencies. Because the reports from local officials have to be verified, they take longer to reach federal agencies and ultimately to reach the public.