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Can Bill Gates Save the World with Social Media?

Submitted by on March 4, 2013 – 3:22 AM

Bill Gates at World Economic Forum

Bill Gates has done tremendous work in the past decade through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve public health around the globe. In a recent interview, Gates discussed how his foundation has made major strides in wiping out polio.

Gates said that the effort to eradicate polio should be mostly completed by 2018. Interestingly, his team is using high technology – including GPS satellite mapping – to find all the remote villages in countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria that need to be vaccinated. Gates really believes that ‘within six year, we will have the last case” of polio eradicated.

And after that? Even bigger plans. Gates plans to attack malaria. Malaria kills 500,000 children in Africa alone each year, largely because of the existence of a highly efficient mosquito - anophele gambiae -  that transmits the disease very efficiently. Malaria also kills about 150,000 elsewhere annually.

Next on Gates’ list is the measles. This disease is high on his ‘extermination list’ because it kills 158,000 people every year. Measles is caused by a virus in the paramyxovirus family, and mostly affects children under five.

Measles is a high priority for Gates because a safe and highly cost-effective vaccine is readily available. It is just a matter of finding out where every measles case is in the world, and getting the vaccine doses sent there and injected.

Social Media to the Rescue

And this is where social media enters the scene. If large philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can effectively harness social media in their efforts to wipe out major diseases, measles, malaria and other public health problems could be greatly reduced. Using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ could play a big role in eradicating serious public health problems, by using the power of social connections to predict new epidemics and pandemics.

According to an infographic published by a MPH degree portal, it has been shown that social media can be effectively leveraged to help to predict disease outbreaks, and to track how and where many diseases spread.

Diffusion of Innovations

According to the theory called diffusion of innovations, we can predict the rate at which new ideas and technology spread through various cultures. The adoption of new technology starts slowly, only among early adopters, but a rapid uptake happens as it begins to cascade throughout the population. We can see how this diffusion has occurred with the Internet in the last 15 years, and with Facebook in the last five years or so.

Diffusion of innovations also can apply to how many infectious diseases can spread through a population. This is known in some quarters as diffusion of infection. This theory states that because of a higher volume of social connections, some people in a social cluster are more likely to be in contact with an epidemic of some kind.

By closely monitoring these people in social media, it may be possible to pinpoint a rising epidemic before it breaks out in the larger population. The time gap between when people in the early stages are infected, and when the majority is infected, could be used to effectively coordinate a public health response to a potential epidemic.

Problems With CDC Reporting Delays

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts traditional flu surveillance in the U.S. It relies upon outpatient reporting and virological test results that are given by laboratories around the country. The problem? That system confirms flu outbreaks a full two weeks after they start.

Social media can help to give us an early heads up.

Twitter and Google Monitored for Illness Trends

For instance, Twitter is playing a more important role in helping scientists to detect outbreaks early on before they become epidemics. Scientists have noted that tweet streams often will closely track the reported cases of influenza. In some cases, tweets have anticipated flu outbreaks one or two weeks before the CDC’s surveillance average.

Google uses information on users’ online searches to track the latest trends in flu outbreaks. As you might think, there are more searches related to flu during flu season, and more allergy-related searches during allergy season. Over time, it is hoped that trends in search queries can give us a basis for an accurate and reliable model of real world phenomena, such as outbreaks of serious diseases.

Other Online Organizations Leveraging Disease Information

The Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) collects relevant news stories from around the world every 15 minutes and provides that information to government subscribers around the globe. This can help to provide breaking information on public health outbreaks.

The site Healthmap.org provides real-time data on many types of infectious disease outbreaks around the world. And the site Sickweather.com produces real-time maps for sickness. It mines public data from social media, looking for keywords related to sickness and symptoms.

These sites also are effectively leveraging real-time information on illnesses to reduce public health problems. And, they help society to save money on future health costs – it has been determined that for every $1 spent on prevention, $5.60 is saved in health spending.

Harness the Power of Philanthropy and Social Media to Eliminate Disease

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made great progress in reducing incidents of many types of diseases. It seems enticingly possible that in the coming years, social media could be used to effectively pinpoint where diseases and illnesses are occurring, and may occur next, and focus public and private resources on those areas.

These and other Internet tools that collect, map and exchange epidemic information could well be used to greatly reduce public health crises in the future.