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How Bad Is the Flu in Your Neighborhood?


Update, 2:45 p.m.: Adds comment from WebMD.

Want to see how bad the flu is in your neighborhood? Health site WebMD (WBMD) has created a tracker that relies on crowdsourcing to estimate levels of illness by Zip Code. According to the site’s users, flu and cold symptoms on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, for example, are moderate to severe. Symptoms throughout the Astoria neighborhood of Queens are merely moderate.

Given that WebMD’s data are based on user reports, results may be skewed. (The UWS simply might have more hypochondriacs—or more people willing to log on and detail their symptoms.) WebMD says the tracker relies on “a combination of geo-location data and information compiled from over 3 million Symptom Checker visits per month to present a real-time analysis of the spread of colds and flu” and that its results have a 0.99 correlation with CDC cold and flu data.

The flu-tracking tool could potentially help increase local awareness of influenza pandemics, says Michael Jhung, a medical officer in the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “If people see what’s happening in their specific geographic location, they may be more motivated to get vaccinated,” he says. “For the past few years, 40 to 45 percent [of Americans have gotten vaccinated]. … Our goal is 70 percent, and we’re not there yet.”

Flu season starts in October or November and can last until May. Increased activity typically begins in December, and one or two viruses generally predominate, though that usually isn’t known until the end of the season. Still, according to the CDC, this year could mark the return of H1N1, a strain that first reared its head in 2009. And younger people might be more prone to catching it than seniors: “Older people were alive when a very similar virus was circulating decades ago,” Jhung says. “They still have some residual protection.” The symptoms associated with H1N1 are similar to those of any other flu: fever, sore throat, nausea, and so on.

The CDC doesn’t track cold and flu symptoms on a local level, but it does provide some national and regional data on its own site, based on reports from health-care providers.

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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