Fitness tracker devices show potential as predictors of flu outbreaks

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According to data provided by Georgia's Department of Public Health, flu-related illnesses and deaths are significantly higher.

The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 650,000 people worldwide die of respiratory diseases linked to seasonal flu each year.

Study author Dr Jennifer Radin, Scripps Research Translational Institute, USA, said: "Responding more quickly to influenza outbreaks can prevent further spread and infection, and we were curious to see if sensor data could improve real-time surveillance at the state level".

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate the use of [resting heart rate] and sleep data in a large population to predict real-time [influenza-like illness] rates at the state level", the authors wrote.

Researchers reviewed de-identified data, which the company's privacy policy allows it to use for research, from users wearing Fitbits and found that they were able to do real-time flu prediction at the state level. From the 200,000, 47,248 users from California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania wore a Fitbit consistently during the period.

They used an individual's resting heart rate and sleep duration and noted if there were abnormalities that were outside a user's typical range.

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Researchers tracked deviations in heart rate and sleep patterns, which tend to change when a person has the flu and compared that data to flu-like illness rates reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rosalind Eggo, a public health expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the study suggests fitness trackers hold some promise as a disease surveillance tool.

Researchers analysed 60 days of data from 47,248 Fitbit users living in the USA to try and predict when they would get sick.

Radin notes that there were a few limitations to their study, but they're at the beginning stages of building a model that will help with real-time flu predictions.

For otherwise healthy people, unless they are becoming unable to breathe, have sudden chest pain or start coughing up blood, flu is not a medical emergency and people should get bed rest or call NHS 111 if they need advice. Among these users, 47,248 of them regularly wore a Fitbit device during the study period. "That gives us better long-term data", she says. By accessing these data, it could be possible to improve real-time and geographically refined influenza surveillance.

The researches also didn't have any data on children and their heart rates. Traditional surveillance reporting takes 1-3 weeks to report, which limits the ability to enact quick outbreak response measures - such as ensuring patients stay at home, wash hands, and deploying antivirals and vaccines.

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