Tracking the Zika Virus Online: How Google Mapped the Start of an Outbreak

PHOTO:An Aedes Aegypti mosquito is photographed on human skin in a lab of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center (CIDEIM) on Jan. 25, 2016, in Cali, Colombia. PlayLuis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images
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As the Zika virus outbreak has spread in Central and South America, online searchers for the formerly little-known virus have exploded across the globe since the start of the year. While the virus initially gained headlines late last fall when Brazil connected a Zika outbreak to an increased rate of infants born with the birth defect microcephaly, it was not until early February this year that Americans started to search for information about the virus in large numbers, according to data from Google.

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The virus made headlines again this week when the Miami-Date Health Department in Florida announced it was investigating a possible local transmission of the Zika virus after a Miami resident contracted the disease, despite not traveling to a country with ongoing Zika transmission and not reporting sexual contact with someone who was infected. If confirmed, this would be the first time the virus has been transmitted via infected mosquito within the continental U.S.

Data from Google trends reveal how Americans and people across the globe have reacted online to the outbreak. In the U.S., searches for Zika remained relatively low before spiking on specific dates. Online interest in Zika in the U.S. coincided with major news, such as when the World Health Organization called the virus a "global health emergency" and when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded the birth defect microcephaly is linked to the virus.

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PHOTO: Zica Searches in the US

In the U.S., interest in the virus has varied widely depending on the state. While the most number of Zika cases have been found in Florida and Texas, residents in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Vermont are showing the most interest in Zika, according to Google trends.

In total, more than 1,300 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the Zika virus, according to the CDC. The vast majority of those contracted the disease while in a country with ongoing Zika virus transmission. In rare cases, the virus was transmitted through sexual contact.

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PHOTO: Google Trends shows the changes in popularity over time for searches on "zika" in the United States.

While Zika infections usually result in mild symptoms, including fever, rash and pink eye, it's been found to cause serious birth defects, according to the CDC.

Cities that are most concerned about the virus tend to be in states with some of the highest number of Zika diagnoses, with Miami and Washington, D.C., currently topping the list.

Globally, the highest number of Zika searches online are not surprisingly in the Caribbean and Central America, where the virus has spread rapidly, according to Google. Jamaica and Honduras currently have some of the highest number of Zika searches.

When people did search on the topic of Zika, they were overwhelmingly looking to understand what exactly the virus was, according to Google News. Here are the top three Zika-related searches in the U.S.

  • 1. What are the symptoms of Zika?
  • 2. What is the Zika virus?
  • 3. What is microcephaly?
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