The number of newly diagnosed HIV cases in Russia has increased explosively since the first recorded case in 1987. Syphilis notification rates, on the other hand, has declined significantly. Nevertheless, it remains among the highest in Europe. For both HIV and syphilis there is a heterogeneous regional prevalence, reaching up to 45-fold difference among some regions for syphilis.
As the Internet becomes increasingly important for seeking health information, it has been shown that common search engines are useful tools for mapping and predicting the spatio-temporal incidence of several infectious diseases. The authors of a recently published study sought to investigate whether it is possible to use HIV- and syphilis- related web queries to predict incident diagnosis rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In order to do so, they used the regional volume of HIV/syphilis queries, normalised to the total number of queries submitted to the most popular search engine in Russia to predict the notification rates of HIV/syphilis in each region by applying both spatial and non spatial statistics.
The authors found a high positive correlation between notification rates and search volume. Moreover, both search volumes and regional HIV/syphilis rates were positively spatially auto-correlated, indicating a clustered pattern of spatial distribution. The authors conclude that HIV- and syphilis -related queries submitted to a search engine reflect regional epidemiology, making it a potentially valuable additional tool for disease surveillance.
What do you think? Can such methods be used effectively for disease surveillance? Could you think of any potential issues?
** The study was written by Alexander Domnich, Eva K. Arbuzova, Alessio Signori, Daniela Amicizia, Donatella Panatto and Roberto Gasparini