Can Twitter be used to track HIV, drug-related behaviour?

images (2)Twitter has gained a new dimension! The popular micro-blogging site may actually prove to be a potentially valuable source of public health information. Social media sites can emerge as a useful means of monitoring HIV incidences and drug-related behaviors which could in turn target potential outbreaks and help detection efforts, a new study shows.

According to experts, risky sexual behaviors and drug use could be predicted by linking the location of the twitter posts with data on the geographical distribution of HIV cases.

Study detail

In order to determine whether social media and mobile technologies can be used to predict and change behavior, researchers examined more than 550 million tweets between May 26 and Dec. 9, 2012.

Though there have been some narrow studies using Twitter posts to track flu outbreaks, no one has ever used tweets to monitor HIV, drug-related behavior.

Study researcher, Sean Young, assistant professor of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and co-director of the Center for Digital Behavior at UCLA stated,“This is the first to suggest that Twitter can be used to predict people””s health-related behaviors and as a method for monitoring HIV risk behaviors and drug use.”

Experts devised an algorithm that helped them sift through words and phrases such as ””sex”” or ””get high”” in Twitter posts that suggest drug use or risky sexual conduct, two behaviors linked with the transmission of infectious diseases. Subsequently, the tweets were plotted on a map to identify their place of origin and compared to geographic data of HIV cases.

The investigators were able to zero down to around 8,538 relevant tweets indicating sexually risky behavior and 1,342 suggesting stimulant drug use. They were able to find a noteworthy connection between the locations of tweets indicating risky behavior and the counties with high numbers of HIV cases.

“Ultimately, these methods suggest that we can use ””big data”” from social media for remote monitoring and surveillance of HIV risk behaviors and potential outbreaks,” said Sean Young.

The study was published in the journal Preventive Medicine.