Researchers at the University of Guelph have undertaken a spatial epidemiological analysis of Lyme disease using internet searches to focus on the association between Lyme disease prevalence and internet search frequencies recorded by Google Trends.
The goal of this study was to analyze the Google trends relating to Lyme disease in southern Ontario for the years 2015–2019 with a focus on the association between Lyme disease prevalence and Internet search frequencies.
“We need to know where people search the term, where they might have been exposed to ticks, because the areas where the ticks live or are active are changing. It's shifting,” said Olaf Berke, a statistical epidemiology professor in the department of population medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College. “That’s where public health could see where people search for Lyme disease, and ticks or diseases that might align with tick activity.”
The study involved first author Maria Kutera, a fourth-year undergraduate student in biological science, and PhD candidate Kurtis Sobkowich.
Berke credited Kutera as the backbone of the study and the person who brought forward the idea for the research project.
The team looked at reports of Lyme disease from 28 public health units in southern Ontario between 2015 and 2019. The researchers then compared that information with Google Trends data for the same regions and years.
Total reported Lyme disease cases per public health unit ranged from seven to 557 cases, with prevalence ranging from 0.64 to 64.62 per 100,000 individuals. The regional Lyme disease prevalence had a mean of 7.86 and a standard deviation of 15.27 per 100,000 individuals.
Berke noted that although the Google trends were linked to geolocations, there is the possibility for the data to be skewed from unrelated searches.
He said there are times when a spike may occur in Toronto when searching for Lyme disease, but that could be related to a host of factors such as a news article mentioning Lyme disease which then causes a spike in searches.
Berke said the public health units can use the findings to monitor the spread of Lyme disease and understand where the hot spots for ticks are in their respected regions.
“Ticks have recently emerged in Ontario, or Canada, because typically Canada was too cold, but due to climate change, now we see the ticks the more farther,” said Berke.
The study found Lyme disease prevalence was not evenly distributed across southern Ontario with the majority of Lyme disease occurring in the Peterborough area.
“These findings align with literature that supports the argument that Google Trends search frequencies can be useful in identifying the presence of Lyme disease. Being able to identify endemic areas and predict outbreaks of Lyme disease can aid in providing a framework for a risk-based surveillance system and reduce the chance of misdiagnosis. Studies show that individuals who are commonly misdiagnosed tend to turn to the Internet for a diagnosis and search for alternative help from commercial labs.” the study posted on the Environmental Health Review reads.