By Melody Y. Hu
Harvard Crimson
UWire.com

A new iPhone application called "Outbreaks Near Me" that allows users to track and report local outbreaks of infectious disease was released Tuesday.

Developed by researchers at Children's Hospital Boston and the MIT Media Lab, the application combines the GPS system of the iPhone with outbreak tracking information from HealthMap.org, a web prowling system that mines official and unofficial Internet data sources for information on outbreaks of emerging, infectious diseases.

"Outbreaks Near Me" provides "location based alerting" of infectious disease outbreaks, according to HealthMap co-founder John S. Brownstein, an assistant professor at the Children's Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP). Users can also choose to set alerts to notify users of new local outbreaks or when they are entering new areas.

"If people know what's happening around them, they might be more likely to take basic precautions," such as washing their hands and getting vaccinated, Brownstein said.

On top of alerting users to outbreaks, the application allows users to submit reports, even photos if they want, of potential outbreaks from their own phones, which would be reviewed by HealthMap, according to HealthMap co-founder Clark Freifeld.

Harvard's University Health Services Director David S. Rosenthal '59 said that although the application will probably not be helpful in diagnosing individual H1N1 cases, it is a "very interesting technique" that could provide health officials with additional information on general incidence trends.

"Using more contemporary ways of reporting what's going on in the community can help public health officials find out [about disease outbreaks] at the earliest possible moment," Donald A. Goldmann, a professor in Immunology and Infectious Disease at Harvard Medical School, said when asked about the application. "This is a nifty, portable way to get people's attention, especially young people."

Some students, however, are skeptical of whether the application will be useful in practice.

Russell C.S. Mason '10 said he would probably not use the application. "I think it would be really stressful and incite a lot of panic."

And Sean R. Singh '12 said, "I hardly use many of the apps on my phone; if it was important it would show up on my News app. I'm not going to spend my time worrying about H1N1."

"Outbreaks Near Me" is available for download for no cost in the iTunes App Store.

This story was filed by UWIRE, which offers reporting from more than 800 colleges and universities worldwide. Read more at www.uwire.com.