Twitter and swine flu: propagating fear or spreading news?

Thursday - 4/30/2009, 10:36am EDT

By Jane Norris
FederalNewsRadio

The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are tracking swine flu cases throughout the United States. But there are other updates coming in from social networking sites like Twitter. How reliable is this information and should you trust what you are seeing?

Q: Twitter is a a social messaging site that keeps people connected in real-time, how are they involved in tracking swine flu?

A: The need for fast information has seen the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) build up a large following on Twitter. Groups ranging from fellow federal institutions, such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to local Red Cross divisions, as well as many regular Twitter users, are employing the service to receive updates. Some experts, though are warning that Twitter can just as easily spread misinformation and panic.

For instance the rumor that has been floating through blogs that you can get swine flu from eating pork, which is not true. According to data from the medical tracking site Nielson, conversations related to swine flu reached 2 percent of all messages on Twitter over the weekend

Q: You can also follow the progress of the swine flu through a Google site, how does that work?

A: Google's Flu Trends, is a site that gathers information about inquiries on the web that would track flu symptoms. If you look at that map site, there is very little increase in activity in recent days.

Q: The bottom line is look to official sources for information about the swine flu?

A: The CDC tracks the spread of flu in the U.S. all year long. Their U.S. influenza surveillance system is a collaborative effort between CDC and its many partners in state and local health departments, public health and clinical laboratories, vital statistics offices, healthcare providers, clinics and emergency departments. The World Health Organization also has a large tracking network in the United States and throughout the world. Those are the official sources and the best place to get real information.

To see Twitter's site for yourself, point your browser to http://twitter.com/cdcemergency

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