HealthMap.org is a brand, spanking new website which draws various articles and information from Google News, online discussion forums and the World Health Organization to name a few, and proceeds to organize that data along a map so that the public can view outbreaks of disease or infection by geographical location. Its accessibility in particular makes it an excellent resource for researchers, public health officials and people in general, all over the world.
Not only does HealthMap.org carefully organize news articles and information with a high-quality filter, the map also categorizes outbreaks based on their level of severity using a color-coding system; this level is determined based on the amount of news coverage and the nature of the news coverage reported on it. HealthMap.org is actually able to ‘understand’ the reporter’s language; recognizing that the word mysterious, for example, is much more likely to be used in conjunction with an outbreak of a disease rather than in a report on the vaccination for a disease.
Clearly this site will be, and indeed already is, an incredibly helpful site – according to an article on Wired.com, epidemiologist Hannah Gould was able to quickly recognize a recent E. Coli eruption at a major grocery chain; and using this site, people in countries where healthcare is non-existent and any kind of disease prevention and treatment is thusly handicapped, people are able to see what is going on and recognize the illnesses that are swarming their area.
But is a site like HealthMap.org really a good thing for North Americans? I am not so sure. Of course, spotting an E. Coli outbreak early on is important and I’m sure that this site will aid in the prevention of many illnesses, but on the whole I am not so sure that this is something we need right now. To me, this site is yet another building block solidifying the culture of fear that we have been constructing and nursing over the years. Several years ago, everyone was positive that they would be afflicted with SARS or be struck by the dreaded bird flu; a couple of years before that, you may as well end your life otherwise the painful flesh eating bacteria would do it for you. Although these were very real diseases with tragic consequences, the amount of anxiety that throbbed in North American culture was outrageous – people stocking up on hand sanitizer and donning facemasks in order to leave the house – the true epidemic was the astounding paranoia, not the avian influenza.
Today, think about how many commercials you see that claim you need this drug or that drug to calm your restless legs or cure your child of ADHD – sure the side effects of the drugs are severe and often disgusting, painful or embarrasing, but at least you will have been cured of that terrifying RLS. Fear is an industry and indeed one of the best marketing tools available to pharmacies and drug companies alike.
Do you know what an actual North American epidemic is? Dangerous self diagnosis using the Internet as a surrogate doctor; people Googling their various symptoms and taking what they believe to be the necessary curative measures, only to end up making themselves even more sick; even causing irreversible harm to their bodies.
HealthMap.org is clearly a highly advanced and helpful website; it is without a doubt impressive, informative and useful but, unless a vicious strain of RAGE virus a la 28 Days Later begins rapidly transforming people into flesh eating zombies, then I don’t want to hear about every single newsworthy diagnosis that takes place within a 100 mile radius of me. I don’t want to be terrified of some violent virus or worry about my family contracting some deadly disease. Thanks but no thanks HealthMap.org – I like what you’re doing, but I’d rather not.