Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester
Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester

New App Analyzes Tweets to Prevent Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester
Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester

Being sick is awful, but complaining often helps. In the future, your whining may help someone else. Computer scientists have found a way to use tweets complaining about food poisoning to track and prevent outbreaks. The researchers presented their results [PDF] at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. 

Geolocation and public health have a long and storied relationship going back to the 1800s, when physician John Snow noticed a relationship between specific water pumps in London neighborhoods and the number of nearby people who died of cholera. At the time, physicians believed that cholera was called by “bad air.” Snow walked through cholera-stricken neighborhoods, talking to residents and watching where the pump from the water went. With this data, Snow was able to draw a precise map of pump usage, unequivocally proving that the water was to blame. (Unfortunately, it would take several years and many more cholera deaths before his “germ” theory was taken seriously.) 

We’ve come a long way since Dr. Snow, but contamination-related outbreaks remain a huge issue. Health departments do what they can with regular restaurant inspections, but they simply can’t be everywhere all of the time. Fortunately, there’s Twitter—and nEmesis. 

nEmesis is a cleverly named app (“emesis” is the medical term for puking) with a single purpose: to pinpoint the epicenter of clusters of food poisoning-related tweets. The researchers reviewed thousands of tweets, then compiled a list of the most common terms related to food poisoning. 

The appearance of any of those terms represents a hit. When enough hits appear in a given geographic area, the nEmesis algorithm can be pretty sure there’s a contaminated kitchen nearby. With enough data, the app can pinpoint outbreaks to a single restaurant. 

"We don't need to go door to door like John Snow did," nEmesis co-creator Adam Sadilek said in a press statement. "We can use all this data and mine it automatically."

Sadilek and his colleagues decided to test nEmesis in Las Vegas, a city that could fairly be called the buffet capital of the world. They gave the app to one group city health department workers, who used it to prioritize their kitchen inspections. A control group of workers were given an app that provided random suggestions as to which restaurants to inspect. 

The researchers collected and analyzed three months’ worth of data from nEmesis and the health inspectors who used it. About 9 percent of the randomized health inspections found citation-worthy violations. The nEmesis-suggested inspections, on the other hand, yielded a 15 percent citation rate. Some of the restaurants involved were given warnings, while others were closed altogether. 

Sadilek and his team say nEmesis likely prevented 9000 incidents of food poisoning and 557 hospitalizations.

"Adaptive inspections allow us to focus our limited resources on the restaurants with problems," communicable disease expert Brian Labus said in the press statement. "The sooner we find out about a problem, the sooner we can intervene and keep people from getting sick." 

Sadilek noted that food poisoning is just the beginning. 

"This happens to be restaurants, but the method can also be used for bedbugs," he said. "Similarly, you can look what people tweet about after they visit their doctor or hospital. We're just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible."

All images from Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester 

Canine Flu is On the Rise: Here's What You Should Know

It's been eight years since the World Health Organization announced the end of the swine flu pandemic, and now the condition is back in the news for infecting a different type of host. As Live Science reports, the H1N1 virus is mixing with canine flu to create new strains that could potentially spread to people.

Dog flu has been around for a couple of decades, but the two main canine strains, H3N8 and H3N2, have never been contracted by humans. According to a new study published in mBio, some dogs in the Guangxi region of China were found carrying H1N1, the flu strain at the root of the swine flu outbreak. Researchers also discovered three entirely new flu strains that were a combination of H1N1 and regular dog flu viruses.

The unrecognized flu strains are the most troubling discovery. As the flu travels between species, it mingles with viruses that are already there, creating a level of genetic diversity that leaves our immune systems, which are best equipped to fight strains they've already been exposed to, vulnerable. The swine flu epidemic of 2009 started in a similar way, when H1N1 jumped from birds to pigs, and eventually to people.

But the new report isn't a reason to banish your pet to the doghouse next time she seems under the weather. The virus samples were collected from dogs in China between 2013 and 2015, and in the years since, zero humans have caught influenza from dogs (though dog flu has started spreading to cats). If the virus continues mutating to the point where it can infect humans, both the CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture will take action. But for now, the CDC states that canine flu viruses "pose a low threat to people."

Canine flu may not be dangerous to humans yet, but it can still be stressful for dog owners if their pet comes down with a case. Ask your vet about getting your dog vaccinated, and if you see your dog coughing, sneezing, and acting less energetic than usual, make an appointment to get him checked out as soon as possible. If he does have the flu, he can be treated with plenty of rest and hydration.

[h/t Live Science]

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3 Simple Ways to Stay Tick-Free This Summer

As the weather gets warmer, you no doubt want to don your favorite shorts and get out in the sunshine. Unfortunately, shorts season coincides with tick season, and we're in the midst of what one expert calls a "tick explosion."

Tick expert Thomas Mather of the University of Rhode Island told Boston 25 News that warm weather is going to lead to a particularly bad summer for ticks. The blood-sucking bugs aren't just annoying—they spread Lyme disease and several other serious illnesses, including a pathogen that can cause a sudden allergy to meat.

There are several precautions you should take to stay safe from ticks and the risks they carry during the high season, which usually lasts from April to September, though some ticks can stay active year-round as long as it's above freezing. While ticks usually live in grassy or wooded areas, you should be careful even if you live in the city, because pathogen-spreading ticks can still be hiding in urban parks.

Tick prevention begins when you get dressed. Wear long sleeves and pants, and if you're in a tick-prone area, tuck your pants into your socks to better protect your legs. Opt for light colored clothing, because it's easier to see bugs against a light color versus a dark one.

You'll want to invest in insect repellent, too, for both you and your pets. The CDC recommends treating your clothing (and tents, and any outdoor gear) with permethrin, an insecticide that you can apply to fabric that will last through several washes. Permethrin not only repels ticks, but kills them if they do manage to get onto your clothes, and you can buy socks and other clothing that come pre-treated with it. Insect repellents with DEET are also effective against ticks.

Since ticks are most likely to make their way onto your feet and ankles, make sure to treat your shoes and socks. And since your dog is more likely to get a tick than you are, make sure to get Fido a tick collar or some other kind of tick medication.

Most of all, you just need to stay vigilant. When you come inside from the outdoors, check your body for any ticks that may have latched on. Ticks can be as small as a poppyseed, so make sure to look closely, or ask someone else to check hard-to-see places like your back. And since they like moist areas, don’t forget to give your armpits and groin a careful look. If you do catch a tick, remove it as soon as you can with a pair of tweezers.

Best of luck out there.


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