(CNN) -- If you have a fever, headache and runny nose, you might go to Google and type the words "flu symptoms" to see whether you've come down with influenza.
Google's new public health initiative, Google Flu Trends, looks at the relative popularity of a slew of flu-related search terms to determine where in the U.S. flu outbreaks may be occurring.
"What's exciting about Flu Trends is that it lets anybody -- epidemiologists, health officials, moms with sick children -- learn about the current flu activity level in their own state based on data that's coming in this week," said Jeremy Ginsberg, the lead engineer who developed the site.
The tool, which launched Tuesday, operates on the idea that there's likely to be a flu outbreak in states where flu-related search terms are currently popular.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collaborated with Google on the project, helping validate and refine the model, and has provided flu tracking data over a five-year period, said Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch in the CDC's influenza division.
Although it doesn't replace the need for real viral surveillance data, Flu Trends is a good model, and the CDC looks forward to testing it this flu season, Bresee said.
"We really are excited about the future of using different technologies, including technology like this, in trying to figure out if there's better ways to do surveillance for outbreaks of influenza or any other diseases in the United States," he said. "In theory at least, this idea can be used for any disease and any health problem."
Researchers found a tight correlation between the relative popularity of flu-related search terms and CDC's surveillance data, Ginsberg said.
posted by Tina Lau, North County Librarian