When hearing about a new epidemic, people will naturally search the internet for more information about it on search engines such as Google and websites such as Wikipedia.
The resulting spikes in people reading about a certain disease can provide valuable information to epidemiologists, who can use views and search counts to monitor outbreaks.
This is the idea behind the RSV Awareness tool, which is used to monitor Google searches and views of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) page on Wikipedia. In most people the virus causes mild, cold-like symptoms and takes about two weeks to recover from. However, infants and the elderly can easily develop severe RSV and require hospital treatment.
RSV – a disease that needs attention
“At the time we already knew that RSV was a disease that needs attention,” said Leyla Kragte-Tabatabaie of Julius Clinical, a partner in both projects who helped develop the tool. “For us this was a very logical step to use the knowledge that we already had for this consortium.”
The tool uses information from both Google Trends and Wikipedia. Google Trends shows users the percentage change in popularity of search terms over time, which in turn allows the tool to monitor spikes in search terms, which regions the searches are coming from, and other topics users searched for.
Monitoring Wikipedia views of the RSV page then allows the researchers to complement the Google Trends data. “Wikipedia is something that is used globally, and one of the sources that many people think about first when they look for a subject,” says co-developer Gillian Schuurman of University Medical Centre Utrecht.
She explains that Wikipedia also provides data on the absolute number of visitors to the RSV page, not just a percentage change over time. “It’s not just relative data, but absolute numbers of visitors to the page,” she said.
Spikes in searches could hint at potential outbreaks
The tool’s combined analytical power offers a lot of benefits for epidemiologists. First, simply monitoring spikes in search volume can help find potential outbreaks or spikes in RSV cases. This in turn helps health authorities respond quickly to these outbreaks. Finding places where Google or Wikipedia searches are low also helps to identify blind spots in RSV awareness.
Monitoring awareness of RSV is also important to monitor the impact of awareness campaigns for the disease. Tracking search volume is also important to understand the societal impact of RSV-related events, such as news about a new RSV treatment.
One example of this comes from late 2021. The months-long COVID-19 lockdowns meant that there was no seasonal epidemic of RSV, which usually occurs in Europe during the winter months. However lockdowns only delayed the outbreak in Europe until late spring of 2021. As news started to report on the outbreak, the tool was able to record the spike in the Wikipedia pageviews of the RSV page.
A similar spike in coverage in Thailand this year was also detected by the tool, says Gillian. “I think the best way to look at what is a signal and what is noise is just to see if a big event, or new vaccines on the market cause a spike chronologically,” she said.
The tool is now online and is being updated each month. The PROMISE project, which is researching RSV disease prevention, treatment and immunisation, is helping to organise an RSV awareness week in November 2023. Here the tool will once again prove itself useful in monitoring RSV awareness among the public.
“Overall, this is one of the most powerful tools that you can use to see the global trend on what's happening, what people are looking for, and what are their interests in RSV,” said Leyla.
PROMISE and RESCEU are supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) programme, a partnership between the European Union and the European pharmaceutical industry.