In an attempt similar to Google Flu Trends, The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention will be working with online search giant Baidu to use its large user database to help forecast flu outbreaks. The deputy director of the Centre, Gao Fu, suggested that the prediction tool may be available later this year and that “big data will play a major role in safeguarding and improving public health.”

Although Baidu declined to comment on the health-project, saying it is still being developed, the initiative could in theory be vital for health officials when predicting outbreaks in certain localities. The increase in H7N9 infections – including the deaths in Zhejiang this year – has led to the country being “perpetually on alert against the threat of pandemics,” and initiatives like the CDC’scould help the country significantly improve its prevention techniques.

“The traditional flu monitoring system, via surveillance from hospitals, is thought to have more gaps in China compared to developed countries, as locals don’t necessarily visit doctors regularly and may wait longer for symptoms to develop before seeking professional advice,” said Chao Deng in an article on the Wall Street Journal. “Data from search engine activity would in theory give Chinese health officials faster access to information that could point to emerging trends, such as possible flu outbreaks in certain localities.”

While Google’s Flu Trend faced considerable criticism last year for overestimating the Christmas flu season by 50 percent in 2012, Lai Shengjie – a researcher at CDC’s infection and prevention control department – said they would diversify their data sources to create a more accurate model. Along with the data collected from the 130 million daily users of Baidu, the CDC are also considering data relating to population movements, weather conditions, and geographical factors to successfully predict flu outbreaks. According to one report, “other medical conditions and issues such as digestive tract diseases, food poisoning, smoking control and infectious outbreak response might be included in the project.”

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(Image Credit: Eneas De Troya)

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