Background: As internet and social media use have skyrocketed, epidemiologists have begun to use online data such as Google query data and Twitter trends to track the activity levels of influenza and other infectious diseases. In China, Weibo is an extremely popular microblogging site that is equivalent to Twitter. Capitalizing on the wealth of public opinion data contained in posts on Weibo, this study used Weibo as a measure of the Chinese people's reactions to two different outbreaks: the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, and the 2013 outbreak of human infection of avian influenza A(H7N9) in China.
Methods: Keyword searches were performed in Weibo data collected by The University of Hong Kong's Weiboscope project. Baseline values were determined for each keyword and reaction values per million posts in the days after outbreak information was released to the public.
Results: The results show that the Chinese people reacted significantly to both outbreaks online, where their social media reaction was two orders of magnitude stronger to the H7N9 influenza outbreak that happened in China than the MERS-CoV outbreak that was far away from China.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate that social media could be a useful measure of public awareness and reaction to disease outbreak information released by health authorities.