Hands holding a phone which has the FluTracking website loaded.

How an Australian online survey joined the global fight against flu and COVID

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.

Dr. Craig Dalton is one of the doctors who worked on FluTracking.(Provided: University of Newcastle)

“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.

Dr Nick Walsh speaking on a podium.
Dr. Nick Walsh helped secure DFAT funding to implement FluTracking in Argentina.(Provided: Dr. Nick Walsh)

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.

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