Natural Supplements for H1N1 Influenza: Retrospective Observational Infodemiology Study of Information and Search Activity on the Internet

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Operations, Information and Decisions Papers
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Internet search
herbal supplements
H1N1 influenza
Health Information Technology
Medical Education
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Hill, Shawndra
Mao, Jun
Ungar, Lyle
Hennessy, Sean
Leonard, Charles. E
Holmes, John. H

Background: As the incidence of H1N1 increases, the lay public may turn to the Internet for information about natural supplements for prevention and treatment. Objective: Our objective was to identify and characterize websites that provide information about herbal and natural supplements with information about H1N1 and to examine trends in the public’s behavior in searching for information about supplement use in preventing or treating H1N1. Methods: This was a retrospective observational infodemiology study of indexed websites and Internet search activity over the period January 1, 2009, through November 15, 2009. The setting is the Internet as indexed by Google with aggregated Internet user data. The main outcome measures were the frequency of “hits” or webpages containing terms relating to natural supplements co-occurring with H1N1/swine flu, terms relating to natural supplements co-occurring with H1N1/swine flu proportional to all terms relating to natural supplements, webpage rank, webpage entropy, and temporal trend in search activity. Results: A large number of websites support information about supplements and H1N1. The supplement with the highest proportion of H1N1/swine flu information was a homeopathic remedy known as Oscillococcinum that has no known side effects; supplements with the next highest proportions have known side effects and interactions. Webpages with both supplement and H1N1/swine flu information were less likely to be medically curated or authoritative. Search activity for supplements was temporally related to H1N1/swine flu-related news reports and events. Conclusions: The prevalence of nonauthoritative webpages with information about supplements in the context of H1N1/swine flu and the increasing number of searches for these pages suggest that the public is interested in alternatives to traditional prevention and treatment of H1N1. The quality of this information is often questionable and clinicians should be cognizant that patients may be at risk of adverse events associated with the use of supplements for H1N1.

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Journal of Medical Internet Research
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