Social media used to track disease outbreak


There are some interesting developments regarding the February outbreak of Legionelliosis which was traced to the Playboy mansion. Reminder: over 120 delegates of the DOMAINFest in Santa Monica, California came down with symptoms of a respiratory illness. The convention included a trip to the Playboy mansion, which later was suspected as the outbreak source. The convention was held Feb 1-4, 2011. The first inquiry to the  LA County Department of Health (LAC DPH) of a suspected legionellesis outbreak was made by the media on February 11. When tracing the outbreak, LAC DPH and CDC scientists discovered a trail of reports preceding February 11 in social media,  including Facebook and Twitter. The Wikipedia entry was updated almost at the same time when the LAC DPH inquiry was made.

Source: LA Times. From a presentation by Dr. Caitlin Reed


Note that there is quite a bit of information in this entry already!

The scientists identified several risk factors: staying at either one of the hotels, and two parties. They assessed the exposure risk based on the fraction of people who were in those venues and who became sick. To do so, they circulated questionnaires, via email and a Facebook list. They came up with this:


Source: LA Times. From a presentation by Dr. Caitlin Reed


The February 3 “Venue A” party seemed to hold the largest relative risk (RR), by far.  That was the Playboy mansion. Indeed, checking the water at the grotto where the party was held:

Source: LA Times. From a presentation by Dr. Caitlin Reed


The scientists concluded that use of social media to trace outbreaks has its pros and cons. The biggest pro was the ability to contact all conference attendees quickly, even though they are geographically dispersed. Also, the Facebook list, tweets and email encouraged a fast response to the survey. They did have some red herrings, and had to put effort into rumor control. I am not sure how much the last two were amplified by the social media effect.


The full slide presentation, and more information are at the Los Angeles Times.


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