Canny use of fitness trackers shows promise against pandemics

Can Fitness Trackers Help People Avoid The Coronavirus?

January 28, 2020
4 mins read

Study shows that fitness trackers like Fitbit could potentially help stem the spread of pandemics, reports PAT PILCHER.


Canny use of fitness trackers shows promise against pandemics

With the world facing yet another virus pandemic, governments are rushing to contain the 2019-nCoV virus as it continues to spread at an alarming rate. It turns out that help may come from an unexpected corner. The medical journal The Lancet reports that a study has found that fitness trackers – in the test case, Fitbit users – could help by providing real-time predictions of outbreaks in large populations.

The research shows that data collected from wearable smartwatches and fitness trackers could dramatically improve surveillance of infectious disease such as the 2019-nCov coronavirus that is sweeping the world at the moment.

According to the study, the resting heart rates spike during infectious episodes, and this can be logged by wearable devices with heart rate tracking capabilities. In the study, scientists anonymised data from Fitbit users. They looked at weeks with elevated resting heart rates and changes to sleep routines.

Canny use of fitness trackers shows promise against pandemics

While there’s growing panic over 2019-nCoV, it has a very long way to go before it is as deadly as the flu. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), influenza is the cause of over 650,000 deaths annually. Around 7 percent of working adults and 20 percent of kids under five years catch the flu each year.

Traditional reporting used by health agencies typically takes between one and three weeks to capture this. The slowness of data gathering also limits the ability of authorities to deploy outbreak response measures in a timely fashion.

Similar studies have been done in the past making use of crowdsourced data (e.g. Google Flu Trends) but they have had at best mixed results. Using existing smart wearables provides a significantly faster and more accurate means of outbreak detection.

Canny use of fitness trackers shows promise against pandemics

The author of the study, Dr Jennifer Radin of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, says:

“Responding more quickly to influenza outbreaks can prevent further spread and infection, and we were curious to see if sensor data could improve real-time surveillance. In the future, as these devices improve, and with access to 24/7 real-time data, it may be possible to identify rates of influenza on a daily instead of a weekly basis.”

The study saw researchers reviewing anonymised data from over 200,000 US Fitbit users from March 2016 to March 2018. The study captured a total of 13,342,651 daily measurements.

Their average resting heart rate and sleep duration were calculated, and deviations were factored in to help identify when these measures were outside of an individual’s typical range. Each week, a user was defined as abnormal if their resting heart rate was above their overall average and sleep was not below their average. The data was also compared to weekly estimates for influenza-like illness rates reported by the CDC.

Canny use of fitness trackers shows promise against pandemics

Using the data gathered from Fitbit wearers, influenza predictions at the US state level were significantly improved, and there was also an improvement in real-time surveillance. The study is unique because it’s the first time fitness trackers have been used to predict an infectious disease. Researchers say that with more data, it could even be possible to apply the method to more geographically specific areas, such as at a county or city-level.

The study’s results were published just before global levels of concern and wall-to-wall media coverage of the coronavirus began to ramp up. You’d be forgiven for wondering just what all the fuss is about. The virus itself is a newly discovered member of the coronavirus family. Virologists are calling it 2019-nCoV. Like other coronaviruses (e.g. avian or swine flu and SARs), scientists theorise that it jumped to humans from animals. Many of the people initially infected frequented the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sells land animals as well as sea creatures.

The 2019-nCoV virus causes pneumonia-like symptoms, which have seen those infected reporting that they suffered coughs, fevers and difficulty breathing. Because 2019-nCoV is a viral illness, antibiotics are not an effective treatment. In severe cases (e.g. where those infected have other underlying medical conditions) some of those affected have had to get support for lungs and other organs. Their recovery has depended mainly on how robust their immune system is. While most of those infected survived, many of the relatively small numbers who died were said to be in poor health.

Canny use of fitness trackers shows promise against pandemics

Much of the global alarm with 2019-nCoV is because human to human transmission was confirmed by China’s national health commission. Adding to this have been reports that the number of confirmed cases in China has grown hugely with cases now in 13 provinces, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin. Infections have also been confirmed outside China, in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, Vietnam and Australia. Authorities theorise that as the incubation period with no symptoms is five days that those unknowingly infected could be infecting others. Because of this, there is speculation that the actual number of people who have contracted the 1029-nCoV virus could be far more significant than initially thought. This is because many with mild symptoms may not have been detected or diagnosed.

Another factor driving concerns with 2019-nCoV centre around its timing. Expectations were that infections could have become more widespread during the week-long Chinese New Year holidays. These start on 24 January and see millions of Chinese travelling home to catch up with family in what is known as the most significant seasonal movement of humanity on earth. This has thankfully so far not been the case as Wuhan and Chinese cities have been placed in lockdown.

Health authorities say that unless you recently travelled to China (or have been in contact with someone known to be infected with the virus), you should not panic about coughs or cold symptoms, as they are probably more likely to be the common cold. Unless you have a persistent cough and/or other symptoms (such as chest pain, difficulty breathing) you probably do not need to visit a doctor. If in any doubt, check with your GP

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.

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