What are our attitudes toward flu shots? It could be as simple as turning to Twitter.
A new study in the journal PLoS Computational Biology shows it's also possible to use the social media platform to track flu shot vaccination rates and attitudes.
Pennsylvania State University researcher Marcel Salathé gathered 477,768 tweets that contained H1N1 vaccination-related words or sentiments between August 2009 and Jan. 2010. Then, his students assisted him in rating each tweet as negative, positive, neutral or irrelevant toward flu vaccinations.
Because many of the Twitter users also included their location in their profile, Salathé was also able to see where vaccination rates were highest in the United States (well, at least according to Twitter). People who were the most positive about getting the H1N1 vaccine were located in New England, the region that also had the highest rate of vaccinations, he found.
"These results could be used strategically to develop public-health initiatives," Salathé, who is an assistant professor biology, said in a statement. "For example, targeted campaigns could be designed according to which region needs more prevention education. Such data also could be used to predict how many doses of a vaccine will be required in a particular area."
Salathé also found that people had the most negative attitudes toward the flu vaccine when it was first introduced, but then the reaction grew increasingly positive the more time passed.
Recently, sociologists from Cornell also found that it's possible to use Twitter to track global mood swings. Their work showed that people seem to be happiest early in the morning, but that they get increasingly negative as the day wears on. However, the world's positivity peaked again at midnight.