As a platform, Twitter has made sharing information simpler, speeding up the rate at which people communicate with each other. A study has found that Twitter's wide reach can also be used for tracking down how diseases like Ebola spread.
Researchers from the Columbia University School of Nursing analyzed more than 42,000 tweets about Ebola between July 24 and Aug. 1, 2014, the very same week that the first American was confirmed to have been infected by the virus, Sierra Leone declared a state of national emergency and Nigeria reported its first Ebola case.
According to results, tweets about Ebola reached over 60 million people three days before an official announcement was made about the outbreak in West Africa. During those three days, almost 1,500 tweets about Ebola made their rounds online.
This shows that Twitter was a valuable resource for sharing news before official announcements were made by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the Nigerian Ministry of Health at the time. The researchers noted that the adoption of Twitter in African countries like Nigeria has been growing exponentially and there is clear proof that the social media site can be a useful resource for disseminating breaking health news in the region.
"The results of this analysis indicate how Twitter can be used to support early warning systems in outbreak surveillance efforts in settings where surveillance systems are not optimal," said Michelle Odlum, Ed.D, M.P.H., and Sunmoo Yoon, R.N., Ph.D., the authors of the study.
Titled "What can we learn about the Ebola outbreak from tweets?" the study was published in the American Journal of Infection Control, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology's official publication.
The first confirmed case of Ebola was reported on March 23, 2014. Since then, more than 11,000 people have died from the disease, most of which are cases in West Africa. More than 27,000 people were also diagnosed with Ebola, but WHO admits those figures may be lower than actual numbers because collecting data is difficult.
Liberia had the highest death toll out of all countries affected by the outbreak but has been declared Ebola-free as of May 9. Cases peaked in August and September of last year in the country as 300 to 400 new cases were reported every week. The last officially diagnosed Liberian victim was buried on March 28.
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