• Google search trends reveal more children are being vaccinated for chicken pox. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A rise in chicken pox vaccination rates means parents no longer have to turn to Dr Google.
Alice Klein

New Scientist
31 May 2016 - 10:41 AM  UPDATED 31 May 2016 - 10:41 AM

No need to Google it. Chickenpox vaccination programmes have meant that fewer people are looking up the disease online.

Australia, Germany and the US have been immunising children against the varicella zoster virus for more than a decade, but the success of these initiatives is hard to pin down.

Now Kevin Bakker of the University of Michigan and his colleagues have found that between 2004 and 2015, Google searches for chickenpox fell in various countries once they began immunising against it

“The effect of immunisation was best seen in Germany,” says Bakker. There was a reduction in searches each time the government expanded its chickenpox vaccination measures, after both the first and second dose.

Australia, Germany and the US have been immunising children against the varicella zoster virus for more than a decade.

On the other hand, regional immunisation programs in parts of Spain and Italy did not reduce chickenpox searches, highlighting the importance of nationwide coverage.

When the team compared the search data with clinical cases, they found a clear correlation, showing that such searches are good indicator of disease rates. But “digital epidemiology”, using search statistics alone, is much quicker and cheaper, Bakker says. “Google Trends is instantaneous, meaning I can look to see what the most popular searches are this morning, anywhere in the world,” he says.

Search engine trends can also provide more in-depth information about disease outbreaks because they don’t just cover people who actively seek medical attention from a doctor or hospital, says Vasileios Lampos of University College London.

But such data-driven estimates should complement existing disease surveillance systems, not replace them, he says.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1523941113

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