Why Google Flu Trends fails

Google Flu Trends — an attempt to estimate flu rates by analyzing searches for flu-related topics — is not terribly accurate. And a group of social scientists might have figured out why. Turns out, the culprit could be Google's own algorithm, which seems to prioritize searches that might have nothing to do with someone having the flu, such as someone asking how to tell the difference between flu and a cold.

Know your flu

If you're not quite sure what the "H" and the "N" in H1N1 stand for or how the 2009 H1N1 differed from the 1918 H1N1, or if H10N8 is just starting to sound like alphabet soup to you, then Judy Stone's article at the Molecules to Medicine blog can help.

Now we know what causes narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease — a finding that helps explain why the 2009 swine flu (and the vaccine used to prevent it) was correlated with increased cases of narcolepsy.

The new flu

After stumping her doctors, a sick Taiwanese woman turned out to be infected with a strain of bird flu never before seen in humans. She survived, and nobody else appears to be infected, but you might want to get used to thinking about H6N1.

How animals pass disease to humans

Given the ongoing outbreak of H7N9 flu in China (and, now, also Taiwan), this is a good time to listen to a fascinating podcast discussion with David Quammen. Quammen recently published a FANTASTIC book, Spillover, about zoonoses — the diseases that humans contract from animals. This includes bird flus like H7N9. It also includes AIDS and a whole host of familiar viruses and bacteria. Bonus: Scary disease girl Maryn McKenna has a cameo in the podcast, discussing the way news media (in China and the US) are covering H7N9 and what you can do to better understand what's happening.

What you need to know now about H7N9 bird flu

Looking for a quick rundown of basic information about the new strain of bird flu that's infecting people in China? The Toronto Star's Jennifer Yang has a great, one-page breakdown that will get you caught up on just about everything you need to know — including how scared you should be. For the record, the answer to that is complicated. We aren't near a pandemic yet. But we do need to get a better handle on understanding how this virus works so we can stop it from spreading. It's a serious situation and the news is not all good news. But we don't seem to be at a point where anybody outside of China and the international public health community should be in an urgent crisis mode.

The science of flu season

Flu season is in winter. Okay, great. But why? (Consider this an open thread for all your favorite humidifier recommendations.)

Why has this flu season been so mild?

Short answer: We don't know. Despite its ubiquity, there's a lot scientists don't know about the influenza virus. Helen Branswell is a great medical reporter. In this piece for the Winnipeg Free Press she explains why the flu virus makes seemingly simple questions frustratingly difficult to answer.