THE UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been using social media to track levels of norovirus, the contagious winter vomiting bug.

Researchers are encouraging Twitter users to make their symptoms public, with a tweet, in an attempt to intervene before a national outbreak.

Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain and abdominal cramps and the illness is spread via food and through person-to-person contact.

The model searches for tweets containing words and phrases relating to symptoms of the virus.

It excludes tweets which include references to pregnancy, anxiety and alcohol.

In 2013, the FSA started looking for new ways to track the virus. They analysed Google searches but found that social media was a better source of data.

Dr Sian Thomas told the BBC: “It’s more about the immediacy…what’s happening in their lives right now.”

It is believed that between 70-80% of the time, the FSA are able to accurately predict an increase in the next week.

A Twitter poll found that users are still undecided about whether they would be willing to share their symptoms online.

Eve Chok, a 21-year-old student, said: “People use social media every day, making it much more efficient than doing surveys.”

“Researchers will get a more honest set of results and those tweeting may not even know they have the virus.”

Jemma Magee, a 22-year-old-student, said: “I don’t really think people on Twitter need or want to know that I’m ill. Especially with something as disgusting as that.”

If the research team predict a national outbreak, they plan to run a digital campaign explaining how to protect and look after yourself.

While norovirus can be dangerous for children or the elderly, the illness is usually a minor inconvenience to healthy adults.

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