The evolution of social media over the past few years has helped provide the public with better access to information that could impact their everyday lives, for better or for worse.

When news about the outbreak of Shigella at a California restaurant reached the social media website Yelp, reviewers were quick to spread the word around in hopes of preventing more people getting affected by the infectious disease.

The timely warning from Yelp users also helped public health officials to get to the bottom of the outbreak.

In her Yelp review posted on Oct. 18, Pauline A. warned users not to eat at Mariscos San Juan restaurant.

"My sister-in-law ... and brother-in-law along with his parents ate here Friday night and all four of them ended up in the hospital with food poisoning," Pauline A. wrote.

Officials from the Public Health Department of Santa Clara County responded to the Yelp review and promptly shut down the establishment the same day.

The agency later reported that more than 80 individuals who had eaten at the Mariscos San Juan restaurant became acutely sick, with many of them taken to hospitals. Twelve of the affected diners had to be confined in intensive care units.

The health department has since reported that the Shigella outbreak in the Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties has now reached more than 90 individual cases.

Shigellosis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Shigellosis is a highly infectious disease caused by the spread of the bacteria group known as Shigella.

People afflicted by the disease typically develop symptoms such as fever, stomach cramps and diarrhea within one to two days following exposure to the Shigella bacteria. The sickness itself often lasts for five to seven days.

While some people infected by Shigellosis may not exhibit any symptoms, they can still transfer the Shigella bacteria to other individuals.

Researchers and public health officials believe that consumer review websites such as Yelp can help in identifying and investigating such cases of food poisoning. It is similar to how people use various search engines to keep track of potential outbreaks such as dengue and influenza.

Previous studies have found that reviews on Yelp can serve as a form of early warning system to warn the public regarding outbreaks.

They can also be used to help health officials identify potential victims that might have been overlooked during investigations in food-borne sickness. This is particularly important if the Yelp reviewer failed to seek proper medical attention after becoming sick.

Photo: Frank Derks | Flickr 

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