Sermo, Taking a Page from Google, Creates Flu Tracker

Looks like Cambridge, MA-based startup Sermo is trying to one-up Google, at least when it comes to tracking flu outbreaks. Back in November, Google researchers revealed that for the last year or more they’ve been keeping track whenever users enter search terms related to common flu symptoms. Working with flu experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers discovered that the frequency of these search queries correlates closely with real flu prevalence data that the CDC collects through surveys of doctors and patients. When people are feeling sick, apparently, one of the first things they do is go online to see what might be wrong.

In fact, they do this so consistently that a group of authors from Google and the CDC concluded, in a paper published November 19 in the prestigious journal Nature, that they can use search data to “accurately estimate the current level of weekly influenza activity in each region of the United States, with a reporting lag of about one day,” as opposed to the 10- to 14-day lag in the CDC’s own data.  Google has even made the geographic flu data available to the public, on the Flu Trends page of Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic wing. (At the moment, the Flu Trends map says flu activity is low everywhere in the United States except for Maryland and Hawaii, where it’s moderate.)

Not to be outdone, Sermo, an exclusive online community for doctors, said today that it has created its own flu tracking system, called Sermo FluMonitor. The system taps information entered by Sermo’s 100,000 physician members and displays it on a map almost instantaneously, making it the only real-time online flu tracking application, according to the startup.

Sermo says members can upload data on each suspected flu patient’s age, gender, vaccination status, presenting symptoms, flu test results, and living situation. The system aggregates this data and can “pinpoint potential outbreaks down to the zip code,” according to the company’s announcement. The application’s map (accessible only to members) shows the number of new cases in the last week, the increase over the previous week, and the number of confirmed new cases, as well as patients’ age ranges and the top symptoms they’re relating to doctors.

If physicians can see from the Sermo flu tracker whether there is a local outbreak, the company says, they may be able to better, faster decisions about whether to test and treat individual patients for the influenza virus, which is most easily combated when caught early.

“Two days is too late with influenza because we’re working with, roughly, a 40-hour window of opportunity,” Gary Munk, director of clinical virology at Hackensack University Medical Center, said in Sermo’s statement. “If you can catch it in under that, you can interfere with the virus by offering prevention methods to minimize disease spread in the area. We could not only treat influenza, but potentially prevent it.”

Sermo says the FluMonitor application could adapted to track other conditions as well, such as tuberculosis, staph infections, and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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