Social media role in tracking norovirus outbreak at journalism gathering

This sounds like norovirus. And some investigators discovering that youngsters use different ways to communicate.

Michelle Ferguson tried to avoid it, but the rapid onslaught of nausea took its toll on her body when she suddenly vomited in the back seat of a school bus last weekend.

She and her fellow delegates, attending a journalism conference in downtown Victoria, were on their way to the Vertigo nightclub for the final gala when dozens of formally dressed students started vomiting on the buses, in their hotel and at the club.

Almost instantly, messages on Twitter told the stories of people suffering from extreme stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Staff at Canadian University Press, who organize the conference every year, contacted health officials as the numbers increased. Within minutes, delegates were asked to return to the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites.

The well-documented outbreak is considered a successful example of the effectiveness of communicating through social media. The conference’s Twitter hashtag, #nash74, led news agencies to the story, became a slick crisis-control tool and has inspired health officials to consider using similar methods to monitor outbreaks.

"It would be fascinating to learn how to use social media to control and manage outbreaks like they did," said Dr. Murray Fyfe, chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority. "I’m sure some were able to limit their exposure because of it."

Messages about the widespread vomiting were sent out on #nash74. CUP staff saw the numbers climbing and shut down the gala.

CUP staff went door-to-door as well, but nothing worked more efficiently than Twitter, according to students.

"I feel a lot more people would have gotten sick without Twitter," Mattern said. "This whole thing would have played out a lot differently."

Methods for tracking and managing outbreaks could change because of the role Twitter played in this incident.

Fyfe and his staff have analyzed the Twitter feed from the conference and could follow how the outbreak spread.

"A traditional investigation would have trouble getting those details," he said. "We’re interested in partnering with people who have expertise in social media to use it as a tool to investigate outbreaks and as a communication tool to control outbreaks."

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