Australians are being urged to join a growing national survey tracking critical data on influenza infection that alerts medical officials to large outbreaks of the debilitating virus.
Flutracking.net, an initiative of researchers from the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health, aims to recruit at least 6,000 people to complete a 15 second weekly online survey on whether they are experiencing flu-like symptoms.
Lead researcher Dr Craig Dalton - a Public Health Physician and Conjoint Senior Lecturer in the University's School of Medicine and Public Health - said in the three years since the survey began, valuable data had been collected.
"The information allows health professionals to better prepare for potential outbreaks of the virus in specific regions and communities and in directing public health action," Dr Dalton said.
"Last year more than 4,500 people from across Australia spent a short time each week completing a survey on whether they have a fever or cough, or are having time off work due to flu-like symptoms.
"Every year we are on alert for the emergence of new types of flu, and this year we will watch with interest given the identification of the new Swine Flu strain in the past week in the United States of America and Mexico."
The importance of tracking flu activity has been recognised by the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) with a $25,000 grant to support continued research into the initiative. The funding has enabled researchers to undertake detailed analysis of the effectiveness of Flutracking.net, compared with laboratory test results for influenza, and the influenza vaccine.
"In 2007, for example, the flu season was particularly bad but Flutracking.net was able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine as lower rates of infection were recorded in vaccinated participants," Dr Dalton said.
Anyone with regular access to email and the internet is encouraged to take part in the survey. People can register at www.flutracking.net and they will be asked to complete a brief survey each Monday morning during the traditional influenza season (1 May to 30 October). HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.