As described in this article, one of the applications of infodemiology (aside from identifying emerging epidemics) is to measure and track knowledge translation and dissemination. When the WHO as well as public health officials around the world dropped the terminology "swine flu", replacing it with "H1N1", on April 29th 2009, I was interested to see whether and how quickly this terminology would be adopted by the public - and ideal test case for a question which could be answered by infodemiological methods.
Figure: H1N1 term (red) versus Swine Flu/Swineflu (blue) terms in tweets (yellow: both). (c) Gunther Eysenbach, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-by V2)
The figure above depicts the terminology used in tweets during the first 3 weeks in May, as a proportion of all tweets containing either "swineflu", "swine flu", or "h1n1" (including hashtags). On May 1st, less than 10% of the tweets contained only H1N1 (but not swineflu or "swine flu") (red), and 7% contained both concepts (H1N1 and [swineflu or "swine flu"]) (yellow).
As could be expected, the adoption of the term H1N1 gradually increased during the first week of May, and peaked on May 8th, when 24% of all tweets contained only H1N1 (and not swineflu or swine flu), while the term "swine flu" (or swineflu) alone was used in "only" 63% of the tweets. However, since then, the "swine flu" term experienced a sudden "revival", with the "swine flu" (or swineflu) term alone again used in 74-79% of the tweets, and "H1N1" hovering around 16-20%, without any clear trend of the term's use increasing.
We are still analyzing what happend around May 8th/9th to cause the trend to reverse (suggestions welcome). One working hypothesis is that interest in the epidemic (and the number of tweets) has declined significantly since around that date, so the nature and content of tweets has changed as well.
Comment: As a public health researcher, I am sympathetic of the reason for the name change and disappointed (but not surprised) by the publics' (in particular journalists') reluctance to adopt the name change. Studies have shown over and over again, that terminology matters: one of my favorite studies shows that changing the diagnosis "chronic bronchitis" to "smokers lung" actually encourages people to stop smoking (Brandt et al., 1997). The WHO had good reasons for suggesting a terminology change: The inherent threat in using the term "swine flu" is that people translate this into the wrong preventive behaviour (such as avoiding pork). If opinion leaders (in particular the media) would have adopted the name change, then - I assume - the public would have had an easier time to follow.
But I guess it is true what people say about change: Only as babies in our wet diapers we embrace change. It is the same reluctance to change which prevents new medical and scientific evidence to penetrate into medical practice and into the consciousness of the public in a timely manner (it takes years to change medical practice even if new research findings are out). And it is this reluctance to change which we hope to visualize with our line of infodemiology work which focuses on knowledge translation questions.
* Infovigil is NOT funded by Google and has no relationships to Google Flutrends - they gladly took our ideas but didn't collaborate.