A New Tool for Family Flu Protection

December 8th, 2013

by Mark Smolinski
Director of Global Health Threats
Skoll Global Threats Fund

Among a mom’s top priorities is knowing her child’s environment and providing protection, especially during baby’s earliest weeks and months. But busy parents need quality resources and up-to-date information to help them keep their children healthy and safe.

Advances in technology have expanded the ways parents can and do keep tabs on their children’s health and wellbeing. We now have the opportunity to apply technology to keeping tabs on disease – specifically on the flu. We have developed Flu Near You using crowd-sourcing technology to empower parents to participate directly in helping to track and prevent outbreaks of the flu.

At Skoll Global Threats Fund, we aspire to identify areas where gaps exist in the global fight to eradicate pandemics. Flu Near You, with its easy-to-use mobile app and website can help parents stay up-to-date on flu activity in their local communities and workplaces. It takes less than a minute each week to respond to a simple health symptom checklist. Survey results are immediately uploaded to an interactive map that indicates where flu symptoms are on the rise throughout the United States.

The protective instinct that most parents know well has almost limitless potential to grow and become a preventive barrier to disease in diverse communities.  We hope parents will join the #FluForce this winter and help keep our families healthy and flu-free.

Flu Near You also provides access to the latest public health resources and the most convenient locations to get yourself and your children immunized against the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 45 percent of children between the ages of six months and 17 years receive a flu vaccination. The only demographic with a lower rate is adults aged 18 years old to 49 years old with an underwhelming 27 percent. These statistics exhibit an alarming gap in vaccinations among children and their parents. Meanwhile, an average of 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized each year because of influenza complications. 

The need for flu awareness and protection starts even before a mom gives birth. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend the flu shot for all pregnant women, but only about half of moms-to-be get vaccinated. When a pregnant woman becomes sick with the flu, both she and her baby face elevated risk of serious health complications. Beyond that, newborns under age six months, who are too young to receive the flu vaccine, also need influenza protection through the vaccination of parents, caregivers, and siblings. A newborn who contracts the flu is among the most likely to face life-threatening complications and require hospitalization. Newborns rely on their parents, caregivers, and siblings to be vaccinated and to know if flu symptoms are cropping up around them.

We recognize the need to motivate all caregivers to participate not only in a valuable health decision like getting themselves and their children vaccinated, but also to engage in something much larger for their families and others across the globe. Flu Near You’s crowd-sourcing platform relies on public participation to learn a variety of aspects about the spread of the flu in a given year.

If this experiment is effective, Flu Near You will help us better understand how flu spreads and engage the public directly in combating this yearly plague. But Flu Near You as a proof of concept is equally important. If people are willing to report symptoms on a regular basis, we could expand beyond flu to other diseases. We could also move beyond the U.S. to the developing world where the challenges are significantly more complex and infectious disease is increasingly more threatening.

Moms, dads, and other caregivers could be the driving force to a universal change in how we approach infectious diseases on a global scale. It’s a lofty, but attainable goal, and it all starts with you, your children and your iPhone.