Online Tool Spotted Vaping Illness Before Gov't Alerts on e-Cigarette Lung Disease

Web-scouring algorithms are aiding the surveillance of a deadly vaping-related lung disease. The online tool, called HealthMap, first spotted the disease on 25 July, according to its curators. That’s nearly a month before U.S. federal officials announced an investigation into the e-cigarette–related illness.  

Since then, HealthMap’s case counts have lined up closely to that of the feds at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In its most recent update, which was based on data collected through 8 October, the agency reported 1,299 confirmed and probable cases of the lung illness; HealthMap counted 1,305 up to the same date. 

The accuracy of HealthMap suggests that such web-based tools are a viable addition to traditional surveillance methods. “We see it not as a replacement [to traditional warning systems], but as a supplement,” says Yulin Hswen, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. “It gives you a more comprehensive picture of everything that’s going on, and in real time,” she says.

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