Craig Dalton recalls a moment of doubt among his team developing an online flu survey in 2005.
The public health doctor recalls the survey designer pushing himself back in his chair and telling colleagues he was worried no one would use it.
It turns out that the fear was unfounded.
The FluTracking survey his team created to help monitor respiratory disease works in real time by asking community members about their symptoms.
It has been adopted overseas, and in some countries it is one of the leading surveillance systems for influenza-like illnesses and, of course, COVID-like illnesses.
Its success is partly due to the fact that the survey takes less than a minute.
When it was created in 2006, it was used by approximately 400 people in the Hunter New England area.
Today, more than 60,000 people across Australia access it every week.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we sent out the survey in 2006.” said Dr. Dalton.
“We didn’t know if we would get five answers, 10 answers, no answers.”
At the height of the pandemic, up to 150,000 people a week responded to the survey and their responses yielded important insights into the coronavirus crisis.
Crucially, Dr Dalton says the investigation showed that standard tests, such as PCR swabs, did not reflect the true number of active cases in Australia.
“FluTracking showed that actual testing rates were not high enough to detect as many cases,” he says.
“It gave us a very good reality on the proportion of cases that we were missing.”
Survey captures experience in real time
FluTracking was inspired by a 2005 Swedish study of a telephone survey to track trends in the spread and severity of influenza.
Use of the survey – created by doctors with help from the NSW Department of Health and Newcastle University – has spread to New Zealand, Hong Kong and Argentina.
He says the survey creates a window into what’s happening in the community in real time.
“FluTracking plays a special role because it goes directly to people and gets their real-world experience,” he says.
Survey translated into Spanish
The push to get FluTracking in Argentina came from Nick Walsh, who worked with the Pan American Health Organization, an arm of the World Health Organization.
Dr. Walsh was a regional adviser for communicable and infectious diseases and worked directly with the Argentine health authorities.
“When it became clear that COVID had really escaped Asia and was going to spread, I immediately contacted the people at the health ministries in South America,” Dr Walsh said.
“We were doing [a webinar] and we had about 300 people [attend] across Argentina in mid-2020.”
The webinar went live, which subsequently attracted an additional 15,000 viewers.
“They [authorities] really had no weapons [against COVID] in Argentina at the time. Obviously with a severe wave coming through Argentina they went into lockdown because they didn’t have much of an option,” Dr Walsh said.
During the webinar, Dr. Dalton introduced FluTracking, which was considered a high-impact, low-cost option.
With initial funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the team was able to set up the survey in Argentina.
“We had to translate it into Spanish in 2021 and we did a soft launch. We’ve only been operational from Omicron, so that’s part of the mix in order to keep up with COVID and obviously now flu,” he says.
The survey comes at the right time
Dr Walsh says the survey was ahead of its time, developed for the internet in the mid-2000s and now available to anyone with a smartphone.
He says he is proud of Australia’s role in helping the South American country and hopes to strengthen ties between the two countries.
“This [coronavirus] was extremely difficult and economically he had his challenges there. So for us to be able to bring something to be able to give them the opportunity to know what’s going on, more information, it’s been a real privilege,” he said.
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