In our recent “Trends and Considerations in Global Infectious Disease Drug Development” webcast, we discussed how infectious diseases remain a serious threat, causing about one in four deaths worldwide despite remarkable advances in medical research and treatments.

While governments around the world are increasing their roles in supporting infectious disease drug development, and advanced technologies are making trials more efficient, there is still a clear need for a more efficient method of tracking outbreaks and surveying disease clusters.

One avenue health officials are starting to investigate is social media, and with good reason. According to research from eMarketer, more than 1.2 billion people used social networks at the end of 2011. Based on its current numbers and growth rate, this number is predicted to approach 2 billion by 2014.

As the use of social media networks continues to grow, it provides an opportunity to develop a way to track and potentially prevent outbreaks of infectious disease. These platforms are crowded with real-time data that can be collected and analyzed quickly, condensing a process that often takes weeks for government agencies to report, into a few days. This rapid collection and analysis of information can alert health officials to early warning signs in various locations and enable them to respond in a more efficient manner.

Social media serves as such an effective tool not only due to of the wealth of real-time data, but also because of the sources from which the information is collected. The majority of users are over the age of 35, an age group likely to be affected by infectious disease. According to Online MBA, almost 68 percent of Facebook users and 58 percent of Twitter users are over the age of 35.  Age is a large factor in monitoring the path of infectious diseases because the risks of acquiring an infectious disease increase as one gets older while the body’s ability to respond to vaccinations and medicines tends to decrease.

One example of successful disease monitoring through social media occurred after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. According to the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, closely watching Twitter feeds and online news was faster than traditional surveillance in detecting the onset and spread of the cholera epidemic. “When we analyzed news and Twitter feeds from the early days of the epidemic in 2010, we found they could be mined for valuable information on the cholera outbreak that was available up to 2 weeks ahead of surveillance reports issued by the government health ministry,” study researcher Rumi Chunara, PhD, said in a press release. “The techniques we employed eventually could be used around the world as an affordable and efficient way to quickly detect the onset of an epidemic and then intervene with such things as vaccines and antibiotics.”

And although social media shows great potential for tracking infectious diseases, the process of gathering such information has plenty of room for refinement. Some outlets, such as, an online social health network for mapping and forecasting sicknesses, believe the addition of data from travel and weather patterns as well as event schedules (such as the Super Bowl) could help better anticipate outbreaks when paired with social media analysis.

But with the use of social media to track and survey disease spread still in its infancy, it is necessary to err on the side of caution. Experts recommend juxtaposing social media reports with virologic data to see how well they compare with true infections. Otherwise, one may run the risk of treating the wrong people.