Are web searches indicators of disease outbreaks? Is Twitter useful?

I’ve tried playing on Twitter, the social networking tool that keeps things self-obsessed and brief, and now that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have weighed in and told me what to think, I agree:

Twitter sucks.

In a related item, researchers from Ottawa and Harvard reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal today that search engine queries of the term "listeriosis" demonstrated a possible signal of the deadly outbreak that killed 20 Canadians a month before the official announcement was made.

Or not.

One of the researchers, John Brownstein of Children’s Hospital Boston, said,

"In the case of listeriosis, as soon as the outbreak was announced we saw people in Canada searching for the word "listeria.’ That’s not surprising. The media drives a lot of people’s search habits on the web."

But searching for the more technical term "listeriosis" began about a month before the public announcement, "and peaked a couple of weeks before."

The researchers don’t know who was doing the early searchers. It could have been food inspection or industry officials investigating the possibility of the outbreak, they say, or queries by family and friends of people diagnosed early.

People were not diagnosed that early, except a couple. Much of the diagnoses came after initial media coverage.

And in another related item, newspapers are dying. But more targeted forms of information are doing okay. People, individuals, are still required to investigate, to probe and to weave disparate data into compelling stories, whether it’s  journalism, public health or science.

People writing on Twitter, “I farted,” does not mean there is an increase in gastrointestinal upsets. People searching the Internet for listeriosis would not have prevented listeria bacteria from accumulating in Maple Leaf slicers and killing people.