FluTracking online tool being introduced in NZ

A new online initiative asking people to report flu is starting small, but there are big hopes for its future.

''FluTracking'' has a 12-year history in Australia but this is the first year New Zealand has taken part.

While some centres have battled to find people willing to assist - several Otago and Southland centres have only a single report - nationally more than 4200 people had signed up, the Ministry of Health said.

While that might sound small in a country of more than 4.5 million, it took time to get the word out, the ministry's director of public health, Dr Caroline McElnay, said.

''The more people who use it, the better it will be as an information source,'' Dr McElnay said.

''We need people to be familiar with it, realise that it is very easy to use, and it doesn't take very long ... we are really keen to see how valuable it can be and what potential it has.''

While FluTracking has the proviso of being a self-reporting tool, it also has the potential of highlighting flu cases and trends the ministry cannot spot via its current surveillance tools, such as GP visits, and sales data for products like tissues and medicines.

Flu tracking had just 400 people involved when it started in Australia in 2006.

This year 35,000 people are involved in Australia, the sample size now being big enough that doctors can track when the disease has arrived by comparing the rate of symptoms between vaccinated and unvaccinated participants.

''We will probably never have a single source of information, but this is the only one which allows people direct input in to it,'' Dr McElnay said.

''What we're looking for is information which is as close to real-time as possible which will enable us to have a heads-up that we are entering a potentially bad flu season.''

Flu not only has a personal cost - an estimated 10%-20% of New Zealanders are infected annually, and about 400 people die from influenza - it also imposes large financial costs.

''It's all about trying to get a better picture of what is happening. We do underestimate the impact the flu has,'' Dr McElnay said.

''Even if you aren't sick enough to go to the doctor or require admission to hospital, you could be sick enough to be off work for a week, or kids off school - all that, when you add it up, builds up to a cost on the economy.''

This year would establish a baseline for flu tracking in New Zealand and, hopefully, the programme would be larger next year, Dr McElnay said.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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