The University of Newcastle, Australia

FluTracking surveillance spreads across the Tasman

Thursday, 24 May 2018

FluTracking, the highly successful online health surveillance system that helps detect epidemics of influenza throughout Australia, has expanded its reach across the Tasman to New Zealand for the first time this year.

Starting in 2006 with just 400 participants, FluTracking has grown to become the largest crowdsourcing influenza surveillance system in the world with currently more than 37,000 Australians reporting their flu symptoms every Monday morning.

A joint initiative of the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Population Health and the Hunter Medical Research Institute, FluTracking aims to develop a system that can rapidly determine the onset of influenza in Australia; the severity of circulating influenza strains; and if influenza strains have changed.

FluTracking founder and co-ordinator, Dr Craig Dalton, said the project’s success as an integral part of Australian influenza surveillance had led to its expansion in New Zealand.

“We are pleased our New Zealand neighbours have joined us this Winter to contribute to the collection of scientific data about the spread of influenza. Increasing the available pool of data about influenza symptoms will help us to paint an even more accurate picture of its movement and severity,” Dr Dalton* said.

FluTracking works via community members signing up to receive a weekly email survey that takes just 10 seconds to complete. The survey simply asks whether a respondent has had a cough or fever in the past week and whether they have had the annual flu vaccine.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection that can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications, so knowing where outbreaks are focused can limit the spread of this debilitating illness and help health care practitioners be better prepared.
Dr Dalton said the 2017 flu season was the most severe since the 2009 pandemic.

“A lot more people developed illness in 2017 than in recent years. In the peak eight weeks of FluTracking Influenza Like Illness (ILI) activity in 2017, the proportion of participants with flu symptoms who had to take time off work increased by 30 per cent compared with the prior five years. When you multiply that impact across hundreds of thousands of people, it is a huge impact.”

Dr Dalton said the aim this year was for FluTracking to reach 40,000 total participants.

“Using the information participants provide us, researchers can determine the onset of the flu season by region and the severity of influenza strains.

“People love being part of a citizen science project. It’s great to see people encouraging their friends to join on Facebook – that has really helped it grow. We have made it really quick and simple. The users describe it as ‘effortless’.”

Each week participants are sent a report and interactive map showing flu-affected areas.

“Our online survey allows health professionals to see where flu is hitting the hardest, and to check its severity. Participants can make a real difference in just 10 seconds a week,” Dr Dalton said.

To find out more and join the FluTracking community go to www.flutracking.net.

* Dr Craig Dalton is a Hunter New England Health public health physician and a Conjoint Associate Professor in the University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, and is supported by the Hunter Medical Research Institute. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.


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