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Warnings about COVID-19 were on Twitter long before the pandemic broke out

Even before the first announcements of the first cases of COVID-19 in Europe were made, at the end of January 2020, signals were already circulating on social media that something strange was happening. A new study by researchers at IMT School for Advanced Studies Luke, published in Scientific reports, identifies signs of growing concern about pneumonia in posts posted on Twitter in seven countries between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. An analysis of the publications shows that “reporting irregularities” comes precisely from geographical regions. , where the main later develop outbreaks.

To conduct the study, the authors first created a unique database with all messages posted on Twitter containing the keyword “pneumonia”

; in the seven most spoken languages ​​of the European Union – English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Dutch – from December. 2014 to 1 March 2020. The word ‘pneumonia’ was chosen because the disease is the most severe condition caused by SARS-CoV-2 and also because the 2020 flu season was milder than the previous ones, so there was no reason to think that he was responsible for all the mentions and worries. The researchers then made a number of adjustments and adjustments to the publications in the database to avoid overestimating the number of tweets mentioning pneumonia between December 2019 and January 2020, ie in the weeks between the World Health Organization (WHO) the first ” cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology ”were identified – on 31 December 2019 – and the official recognition of COVID19 as a serious communicable disease on 21 January 2020. In particular, all tweets and retweets containing links to news about the emerging virus are eliminated from the database to exclude from the number of media coverage of the emerging pandemic.

The authors’ analysis shows an increase in tweets mentioning the keyword ‘pneumonia’ in most European countries included in the study as early as January 2020, showing a constant concern and public interest in cases of pneumonia. For example, in Italy, where the first measures to block COVID-19 infection were introduced on 22 February 2020, the rate of increase in said pneumonias in the first few weeks of 2020 differs significantly from the rate observed in the same weeks in 2019. d. This means that potentially hidden infection hotspots were identified a few weeks before the announcement of the first local source of COVID-19 infection (February 20, Codonjo, Italy). France showed a similar pattern, while Spain, Poland and the United Kingdom witnessed a two-week delay.

The authors also geolocated more than 13,000 tweets related to pneumonia during the same period and found that they came precisely from the regions where the first cases of infections were later reported, such as the Lombardy region in Italy, Madrid, Spain and Ile de France.

Following the same procedure used for the keyword “pneumonia”, the researchers also created a new data set containing the keyword “dry cough”, one of the other symptoms later associated with COVID-19 syndrome. Even then, they observed the same pattern, namely an unusual and statistically significant increase in the number of mentions of the word in the weeks leading up to the wave of infections in February 2020.

“Our study adds to the existing evidence that social media can be a useful tool for epidemiological surveillance. It can help capture the first signs of a new disease before it multiplies undetected, as well as track its spread,” Massimo said. Ricaboni, a full professor of economics at the IMT School who coordinates the study.

This is particularly true in a situation such as the current pandemic, where shortcomings in the identification of early warning signals have left many national governments blind to the unprecedented scale of the impending public health emergency. In a consistent phase of the pandemic, social media monitoring can help public health authorities mitigate the risks of a recurrence of the infection, for example by adopting stricter measures to socially alienate when infections appear to be increasing or, conversely, to release them. in other regions. These tools can also pave the way for an integrated epidemiological surveillance system managed globally by international health organizations.


The report “Early Warnings of COVID-19 Outbreaks Across Europe from Social Media” is available after publication at: http: // www.nature.with /articles /s41598-021-81333-1

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news reports published in EurekAlert! through contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

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