The UK Food Standards Agency are encouraging people to tweet about their food poisoning, according to a recent report by the BBC.
By analysing posts on Twitter, the government agency estimates that they can predict with 70-80% accuracy when there will be an increase in people suffering from food-borne illness the following week.
The online system works by searching for tweets with mentions of norovirus symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea and stomach cramps. Tweets that mention other possible causes of the symptoms such as anxiety, pregnancy or alcohol consumption are excluded, and the remaining tweets are geo-tagged and correlated with lab results to predict when an outbreak is about to occur.
The agency started looking at ways to track food-borne illness outbreaks back in 2013. Originally their efforts centred around identifying Google searches but they eventually found social media to be more accurate due to the immediacy of the posts.
When a potential norovirus outbreak is identified, it enables the Food Standards Agency to quickly intervene and reduce the number of people that are affected.
"In order to have the biggest impact, it's better to roll out that intervention when the numbers of cases of norovirus are going up… when we've got three consecutive weeks of a predicted increase," says Dr Sian Thomas from the agency.
"The intervention is really quite basic," she notes. "It's about washing your hands, it's about looking after yourself, and not coming in to contact with other people while you're sick."
Norovirus is the most common cause of stomach complaints in the UK and affects up to 1 million people per year. The symptoms of the virus include vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea and stomach cramps, and typically last for 1 to 2 days. The person then remains infectious for a further 2 days after the symptoms have passed. Norovirus is a highly contagious virus and is spread through food and person-to-person contact.
There's no known cure for norovirus. Antibiotics don't work and people thought to be suffering from the virus are advised to rest and stay hydrated. At the Australian Institute of Food Safety, we always recommend seeking medical advice if suffering from severe food-borne illness symptoms - it's better to be safe than sorry.