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Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigators admit they failed to get a handle on a serious Cyclosporiasis outbreak that has now affected 609 people in 22 states.
Looking for needles in social haystacks
A group of social media developers in Chicago have been working on how to provide appropriate tracking methods for food borne illnesses. The researchers created the Foodbourne Chicago app, connecting consumers in Chicago with the local Department of Health.
The app constantly searches social media outlets like Twitter with keywords related to the issue. When a tweet is discovered that is related to a suspected food borne illness that originated in the Chicago watch area, developers will respond by advising individuals to use an online interface to complete a simple report. This information is forwarded to the City's 311 emergency service, a tracking number is issued and local health officials keep up with developments, including the victim's state of health.
All this information, once compiled, can bring to light developing food safety issues that may pose a serious public health risk. Authorities can then respond appropriately to prevent the problem from becoming more widespread, including monitoring potential risks at public restaurants and other food provider locations, and to take corrective action when trends trigger a credible and specific warning.
During early tests, some 70 incidents have been logged, though not all of them as a result of Twitter searches. But developers say they are encouraged by the response and the quality of the information gathered and believe after additional development and more tweaking, the app could become a first or early response system to add a layer of safety for consumers by quickly identifying and sharing information about a food born illness outbreak almost as fast as it develops.
Another benefit of the program will be providing information to local health officials as they attempt to identify restaurants and eateries that need special attention. The large number of restaurants, cafes, diners, delis and other food establishments in Chicago make regular inspections a difficult task, but information gathered by searching social media sites could help identify potential problems before they get out of control.
The idea to connect social media with a set of specific keywords for the purpose of information gathering and marketing isn't exactly new. A similar technology, known as nEmesis, was developed by researchers at the University of Rochester. That program also used Twitter data to identify potential food poisoning cases. University researchers have combed through nearly 4 million tweets and identified well over 400 possible food poison-related cases.
Both programs are in the early stages of testing, but food safety officials say they hope new technology and better awareness by the public, combined with timely inspections of eating establishments, markets, warehouses and trucks where food is stored, processed or shipped, will one day lead to better and more efficient ways to protect consumers from unexpected food borne illness.
Health officials point out that social media apps and programs can never replace clinical evaluation and emergency response as appropriate measures to protect public health. But they hope such programs can at least provide additional surveillance and another layer in the early warning system before outbreaks of food borne illness can get out of hand.\