With concerns about the swine flu outbreak on many minds this week, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the public is turning to the Web for information on how bad the threat might be, and what they can do to mitigate the risk.
Concern about swine flu is evident in the volume of Google searches for the term. Searches increased almost 20 fold during the period ending April 26, and are likely to be still surging. Google’s data shows that concern was highest in the states of California and Texas.
Google’s search data isn’t perfect. Its updated flu Web site is showing high flu activity in Hawaii — although there are no reported cases of swine flu in Hawaii, however.
One source of detailed, accurate information is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which is maintaining a swine flu wiki. In addition to charting the outbreak — with stats updated several times a day — the CDC’s wiki offers a list of precautions, like washing your hands, sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Those aren’t the only online resources about swine flu seeing interest. According to Alexa’s list of hot URLs, swine flu-related stories comprise four of the top 10 URLs on the Web. A story on Yahoo News ranks number 1 and a story on MSNBC ranks No. 5. The swine flu page of CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta ranked eighth, while the CDC’s Swine Flu Wiki ranked ninth.
Meanwhile, thieves are eager to take advantage of the panic. Yesterday, U.S. CERT warned of scams in which purveyors of malware attempt to get victims to click on infected attachments by using social engineering techniques. As always, the advice is to not trust alarming messages from senders you don’t know.
The scam as reported by McAfee’s Avert Labs appears to be very similar to traditional pharmaceutical spam, modified to take advantage of the concerns of the day.
As InternetNews.com has noted in the past, thieves and spammers tend to take advantage of breaking news and trends. Every year, there’s a spam outbreak for Valentine’s Day and specially targeted malware for tax time. Scammers even tried to take advantage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Despite the number of scammers preying on people who are seeking information on the outbreak, health officials and said that in general, the effort to get more data out to the public is important.
Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said yesterday during a conference call with reporters that that previous experience of outbreaks have taught the world the value of openness. And with data on the outbreak being made available, there is a “shared learning experience” that works to the advantage of everyone in the world.
“We want to keep a level head on this and not rush to worst case scenario unless the data guides us in that direction,” she added.