Doctors may soon be better able to predict the outbreak of infectious diseases thanks to a surveillance system that uses Google and Twitter.
The Ministry of Health and the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) confirmed plans to look into introducing "syndromic surveillance" into their current systems.
The practice involves collecting data from different sources - not limited to information about health - to anticipate any significant outbreaks, said Dr Nada Al Marzouqi, the deputy director of preventative health at the health ministry.
"This is a novel way of looking into surveillance. It is just an early warning system that might detect risks early," she said.
Tracking outbreaks in real time is vital, said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of the communicable diseases department at Haad.
"Being prepared ahead of time for any outbreak will be very helpful in terms of cost saving because you will be able to manage the outbreak, if there is any," she said.
Syndromic surveillance, which is still under review by the World Health Organisation, utilises internet search engines and social networking sites to provide a more in-depth report, said Dr Al Hosani. "Google's flu map [Google Flu Trend Tracker] is one of the methods of surveillance.
"What they depend on is that people search for fevers. Google maps it and they see how many people in the UAE searched for this term. They map the people according to their countries.
"One other type of syndromic surveillance is looking into Twitter trending. You can see that when people have some kind of symptom, are sick, they might mention this on Twitter."
Google's tracker - first used in 2008 to help people track the spread of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu - was very representative, added Dr Al Hosani.
Effective surveillance would also allow for more epidemiological - the analysis of health events and patterns in a population - studies to be carried out, said Dr Suaad Aljaberi, an infectious disease specialist and the director of Abu Dhabi Police's medical laboratory.
"It is very important to collect the data. Then we will know what kind of problem there is," she said.
A system would tell medics "how to know if this kind of infection is common in this area. If so, then we can study the why, where and who", Dr Aljaberi added.
“Who was the first to be infected? Did the incident take place yesterday? Is it now not there? Has the infection spread? Is the problem decreasing? All these kinds of data analysis are beautiful,” Dr Aljaberi said.
Studies coming out of the region are rare but people are coming around to the benefits of a thorough collation of information.
“Now there is more progress. Now they know the importance of a study. Now they know the importance of data collection. Once we have data collection, all the problems will be solved,” said Dr Aljaberi.
Places such as Abu Dhabi Police’s research department, which awards grants to postgraduate students who submit proposals, Zayed Military Hospital and UAE University, the top research university in the GCC, have helped to remedy the problem.
Years ago, doctors worked manually, mailing their case notes to the Ministry of Health, which resulted in some outbreaks going unnoticed for up to a week.
Haad’s current system links every healthcare facility in Abu Dhabi, public and private, to a database.
“The notification system is basically a link between us and the doctor,” Dr Al Hosani said. “So when the doctor suspects [something], he reports it to us.”The information is received as soon as it is submitted.
Every doctor has access to the main database. From there they are given a list of questions asking them to describe an infected patient’s symptoms and give the area where the person lives.
If more than one incidence of a similar nature is submitted, Haad will work on an action plan to tackle the problem.
Doctors and hospitals have become accustomed to the current system, launched two years ago, which has led to an increase in data output, said Dr Al Hosani.
Since 2009, the number of notifications made to Haad has increased from 13,355 to 18,221.
But the jump is no cause for alarm, said Dr Al Hosani.Initially, many doctors did not comply because of the time required to record information properly. But the increase in notifications shows they have adapted to the electronic system.
Part of Haad’s system includes a list of criteria used by doctors to check which cases should be given special attention. This allows them to distinguish between patients.
“For example, if I’m talking about influenza, what do I mean by influenza? What do you need to look for? What are the cases that need to be reported?” Dr Al Hosani said.
But even if syndromic surveillance is implemented, researchers will always face a problem when it comes to the lack of historical data, Dr Aljaberi said.
“These people work better if they have history, if they have long history. Even if they don’t have the tools, just [by] looking at the data, they will know,” she added.
By Zaineb Al Hassani