People taking part in this year’s Flusurvey, the UK’s biggest crowd-sourced study of influenza, will for the first time be offered a swab to confirm if their symptoms are caused by a flu virus or not as part of a new collaboration with i-sense.
i-sense is a 5 year interdisciplinary research collaboration in early warning sensing systems for infectious diseases, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Data from social media and internet searches will also be combined with Flusurvey, allowing flu trends to be monitored across the UK more accurately and earlier than ever before.
Flusurvey scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine will analyze weekly information relating to symptoms, provided in an online questionnaire by participants, to monitor if flu is taking hold over the winter months.
They will team up with Public Health England (PHE) and i-sense to compare this information with the results of swab samples and with ‘big data’ on millions of symptoms reported every day via sources such as Twitter.
Complaints of coughs, colds and flu-like symptoms are a common feature of life at this time of year but not all sniffles are a sign of flu. Verifying cases of a virus through testing is a crucial part of efforts to spot a pandemic flu outbreak with the potential to cause serious illness and death, and Flusurvey data feeds into national surveillance programs.
This year, some participants who sign up at http://www.flusurvey.org.uk will be provided with a self-administered nasal swab, enabling official confirmation and a more accurate picture of flu trends in the UK.
Swabs will be sent to 700 participants of different ages and in different locations, selected to represent the population as a whole. If they report an influenza-like illness in their weekly Flusurvey update, they will use the swab themselves at home and see the results in a matter of minutes – much like a home pregnancy test. They will submit their results via email as well as mailing the test to a PHE laboratory for verification.
The number of positive tests received each week will be compared to figures obtained by GP-based virological sampling run by PHE for the same week.
“Virological swabbing is an exciting development of the Flusurvey project as it is going to allow us to see whether those who report symptoms online actually are suffering from a flu virus or something else entirely,” said the UK Flusurvey’s coordinator, Clare Wenham, Research Fellow in Public Health Engagement at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “This way we can get a much better understanding of the burden of flu at any one time in the UK.”
Image credit: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine