An exciting new project to help monitor the spread of flu in the UK more accurately and earlier than ever before has been funded by i-sense, an £11m EPSRC-funded collaboration led by UCL.
Flusurvey is the UK’s biggest crowd-sourced study of influenza and through a new collaboration with i-sense, will combine innovative mobile and big data technologies with an online participatory flu monitoring platform flusurvey.org.uk to map trends as soon as seasonal flu takes hold.
Flusurvey scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine monitor flu across the UK by analysing weekly information relating to symptoms, provided in an online questionnaire by volunteers. With this new funding, Flusurvey will, for the first time, be able to verify this data by offering some of their participants a swab to confirm if their symptoms are caused by a flu virus or not.
The easy to use, self-tests can be done at home- a small swab sample taken from the nose is analysed on a test that works in a similar way to a pregnancy test and the results are shown within minutes. Participants can submit their results by taking a picture on their mobile phone and emailing them as well as posting the test to a PHE laboratory for verification.
Together with scientists from Public Health England (PHE) and UCL, the results of these swabs will be analysed and combined with data from the millions of symptoms reported every day via web searches and social media platforms such as Twitter, providing geographically-linked information and supporting a more accurate picture of influenza-like illnesses in the UK.
This exciting project will identify flu outbreaks much earlier than ever before and help us to develop a new generation of mobile phone-connected tests, allowing people to report their symptoms and self-test in their own homes.
Professor Rachel McKendry
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 laboratory testing and self-tests) 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 programmes.
An app is currently being developed by i-sense researchers at UCL so users can read out the results of their tests instantly and send them directly to Flusurvey from their mobile phones.
Professor Rachel McKendry, Director of i-sense at UCL and Professor of Biomedicine and Nanotechnology at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, said: "This exciting project will identify flu outbreaks much earlier than ever before and help us to develop a new generation of mobile phone-connected tests, allowing people to report their symptoms and self-test in their own homes. The mobile phone app currently being developed will help provide up to the minute information about flu hotspots. Future, mobile phone connected tests could also help patients gain more rapid access to follow up care."
UK Flusurvey’s coordinator, Clare Wenham, Research Fellow in Public Health Engagement at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added: "Virological swabbing is an exciting development of the Flusurvey project as we can get a much better understanding of the burden of flu at any one time in the UK."
Researchers are calling for members of the public across the UK to sign up to participate in order to collect as much data as possible to map this year’s flu trends and to help medics and health services prepare. Traditional monitoring methods rely on data from GPs or hospitals, but this project will provide a unique insight because many people with flu-like illness do not visit a doctor.
i-sense is an interdisciplinary research collaboration for early warning sensing systems for infectious diseases that combines the use of web data with low-cost mobile phone-connected diagnostics for the early detection of diseases, such as flu, bacterial infections and HIV.
This project was funded through the i-sense Exploratory Projects Fund.