Facebook as Public Health Resource?

The phenomenon of social networking software is something well understood by millions of netizens, but still remains a mystery to certain segments of society. A morning of random link-following led me to a very interesting Google map mashup overlayed with public health data that clearly demonstrates the usefulness of certain kinds of visualization. And fresh data, too, this map is being updated regularly. Very interesting indeed.

But what does this have to do with social networking software? One of the flags on the map indicates a rabid bat was located in Ontario, Canada, with a link to an email describing how the woman who brought in the bat was located for follow-up treatment for rabies exposure.

The answer? Facebook.

After several attempts to locate her, including a media release, proved to be unsuccessful, one of the communications staff at Toronto Public Health suggested using the website “Facebook.com”.

The woman’s name came up on the website through its search feature, and a message was posted for her outlining the above scenario along with an immediate request to contact Toronto Public Health. Within 2 hours she contacted our office and has been started on rabies post-exposure prophylaxis given her close contact with the rabid bat.

Our team wishes to emphasize to other public health units that “Facebook.com” should be considered a new and helpful form of communication in challenging cases requiring contact tracing.

This just highlights the need to explain the Web 2.0 phenomenon and other emerging technologies to an ever widening audience of faculty, staff, researchers, and administrators, because this data is out there and it can be useful for all sorts of purposes that might not occur to us at first blush. Kudos to the employee in the Toronto Public Health office for using social networking technology to possibly save that woman’s life.


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