Google's New Site Aims to Detect Flu Outbreaks Faster

"What we have done is actually looked at four or five years of all of the data collected by the CDC's network of physicians. ... We compared that to the aggregated search queries on the flu over the past five years. We realized that the correlation tends to be very, very tight."

It remains unclear, however, how the information will be affected by the possibility of manipulation on the Internet by people hoping to alter results.

New Tool for Flu Surveillance Needed

Still, while they wait to see the results of the new system, researchers say that unconventional methods like this have had some success in the past.

Jackson cited an outbreak of diarrhea several years ago in Milwaukee that was caused by a faulty septic system. She noted that the outbreak was caught because pharmacists in the area noticed that the diarrhea drug Imodium and toilet paper were flying off the shelves.

Morse noted that another Web site with a similar concept to Google Flu Trends, called Who is Sick? asks sick individuals to describe their symptoms. They can then observe if others in their area have similar illnesses.

Morse also indicated that better surveillance is certainly needed for figuring out where outbreaks of flu occur.

"Determining when a flu outbreak begins is difficult because there's a tendency not to report it," he said.

"Flu is underreported. People don't tend to go to hospitals or physicians unless they think they are very sick. What you're seeing, usually, when you actually get reports of flu outbreak, is those who are sick enough."

Morse said novel methods that observe human behavior to make predictions about disease outbreaks greatly aid the fight against influenza.

"I think we need a lot of ideas like this," he said.

Dan Childs contributed to this report.

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Cold & Flu season is here! Visit the ABCNews.com OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center to get all your questions answered about these nasty viruses.

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