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Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says a new project is seeking to establish if tracking trends on social media and unconventional data can help predict outbreaks and further improve our responses to epidemics.

“We’re in the midst of the cold and flu season, so trying to predict outbreaks of infectious bugs is top of mind,” says Dr Coleman.

“The Ministry of Health is trialling an innovative approach aimed at improving our response to epidemics by predicting outbreaks earlier.

“The project uses alternative sources of information to detect trends that indicate the spread of infectious diseases, including social media and a range of historic and current data sets.

“People often talk about being unwell on social media, so trends can be detected on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Picking up on trends could help us to put the appropriate measures in place earlier to prevent disease spread, and ensure sufficient stocks of medicines are available.

“The Ministry is also harnessing a wide range of data for this project, such as anonymised information about school absenteeism, employee sick leave, pharmacy sales of over-the-counter medicines, Healthline calls and tissue sales.

“Claims that luxury soft tissue sales surge at the start of influenza outbreaks are also being analysed to see whether not just the sale volumes but the types of products can act as an early epidemic warning.

“This project builds on our existing monitoring programmes which work well to identify trends in communicable diseases using traditional methods, such as surveillance of lab results and data from general practices.”

There's currently an online survey that asks people if they’ve ever posted information social media about themselves or their family’s illnesses.

This innovative project is supported by the $888 million extra invested into Vote Health this year, taking it to a record $16.8 billion.

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