11/13/2012 11:35 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

10,000 Watchdogs Stand Guard Against the Flu

Joe Lastinger, a 40-year-old Texan health care CEO and father of three, recalls discovering the motionless body of his flu-stricken daughter, Emily.

"I heard my wife start screaming from upstairs," he said.

Four days after being diagnosed with the flu, 3-year-old Emily had stopped breathing.

"Her lips were blue," he said. "I started CPR. My wife called 911."

Emily was rushed to the local emergency department and transferred to a children's hospital intensive care unit. The doctors there told her parents that their little girl was brain-dead.

"She passed away that night," he said. "We said goodbye. We held her."

Emily's family is not alone in this tragic experience. Anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 Americans die each year from the flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting a flu shot every year is the best way to prevent the flu. Washing hands often, covering your nose and mouth while coughing and sneezing, and avoiding others if you are sick can reduce the spread of the flu.

And now, there's a free website and mobile app -- called Flu Near You -- that helps people find nearby places to get a flu shot, enrolls people to act as flu watchdogs, and allows them to track flu activity in their neighborhood so they can protect their loved ones.

Tracking the spread of flu across the United States every year, at the community level, was impossible until now, said Dr. Mark Smolinski, director of global health threats at the San Francisco-based Skoll Global Threats Fund, which supported this project.

"The world is connected in real time through social media and mobile devices that allow direct engagement of people," he said. "I believe that people will be a part of public health, if given the opportunity."

Anyone over the age of 13 in the United States can sign up online to be a flu watchdog on Flu Near You. Each week, flu watchdogs receive an email linking to a survey that asks whether they had a flu shot and if they have flu symptoms. They can also fill out surveys about other family members. They can compare this self-reported data to Google Flu Trends and official government data on flu activity.

"Self-reported data can be just as useful as traditional flu surveillance but with way more detail in demographics and geography and for a fraction of the cost," said John Brownstein, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Healthmap of Boston Children's Hospital, the website that hosts Flu Near You.

About 10,000 flu watchdogs -- of which 40 percent are men -- have been enrolled across all states, and more than 125,000 surveys have been filled out since this platform was launched in the fall of 2011, he said.

"After you submit your survey, we wanted to provide useful feedback," Smolinski said. "People want to know, 'When is flu hitting my community?' The map tells you, 'Is flu near you?' In addition, we've created a platform that provides other useful information, like where to get a flu shot, or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates on flu."

Such information might have saved Emily's life. Her death from the flu in 2004 could have been prevented, except her family didn't know it at the time.

"We should have made sure she was vaccinated," Lastinger said.

"Her doctor didn't recommend it to us," he said, explaining that the flu shot guidelines didn't include healthy children eight years ago.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everybody over the age of 6 months get a flu shot as soon as it is available every year.

Lastinger -- who now advocates for flu shots for kids -- recently signed up to be a flu watchdog on Flu Near You.

"It's simple and easy to use," he said. "It takes 15 seconds ... It's an innovative way of letting people input information and benefit from information," he said, adding that the up-to-date, anonymous, openly-shared flu maps can alert people to when they should start taking prevention measures.

By reminding and directing people where to get a flu shot, Flu Near You could save lives, he said.

"I am absolutely confident that somebody will check out this website, change their mind, and get their flu shot," he said.

"Influenza vaccination saves lives," he added, "It's important for everybody to get vaccinated. Be on the safe side and do it."

Disclosure: Dr. Julielynn Wong helped build Flu Near You while working at the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

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