Sign up to be a "flu tracker"

ON TRACK: Last year's deadly flu season was the most severe since the 2009 pandemic.
ON TRACK: Last year's deadly flu season was the most severe since the 2009 pandemic.

A citizen science online flu tracking system that detects influenza outbreaks throughout Australia has expanded to include New Zealand.

FluTracking is the world's largest crowdsourcing flu surveillance system, with more than 37,000 Aussies reporting their flu symptoms once a week.

It works by people signing up to receive a quick weekly email survey. The "flutrackers" are asked if they have had a cough or fever in the past week and if they have had the annual flu vaccine.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection that can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications, as was seen during last year's deadly flu season.

Knowing where outbreaks are focused can limit its spread and help health care practitioners be better prepared.

A joint initiative of the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Population Health and the Hunter Medical Research Institute, FluTracking aims to develop a system that can rapidly determine the onset of flu in Australia, the severity of circulating strains, and if flu strains have changed.

Founder and co-ordinator Craig Dalton said expanding the project to New Zealand and increasing the available pool of data "will help us to paint an even more accurate picture of its movement and severity".

Dr Dalton said the 2017 flu season was the most severe since the 2009 pandemic.

"A lot more people developed illness in 2017 than in recent years. In the peak eight weeks of FluTracking Influenza Like Illness activity in 2017, the proportion of participants with flu symptoms who had to take time off work increased by 30 per cent compared with the prior five years.

"When you multiply that impact across hundreds of thousands of people, it is a huge impact."

Dr Dalton said the aim this year was for FluTracking to reach 40,000 participants.

"People love being part of a citizen science project. It's great to see people encouraging their friends to join on Facebook - that has really helped it grow. We have made it really quick and simple."

Each week, participants are sent a report and interactive map showing flu-affected areas.

"Our online survey allows health professionals to see where flu is hitting the hardest, and to check its severity. Participants can make a real difference in just 10 seconds a week," Dr Dalton said.

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