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Open Access Research article

Incidence and risk factors for influenza-like-illness in the UK: online surveillance using Flusurvey

Alma J Adler*, Ken TD Eames, Sebastian Funk and W John Edmunds

Author Affiliations

Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, UK

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2014, 14:232  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-14-232

Published: 1 May 2014

Abstract

Background

Influenza and Influenza-like-illness (ILI) represents a substantial public health problem, but it is difficult to measure the overall burden as many cases do not access health care. Community cohorts have the advantage of not requiring individuals to present at hospitals and surgeries and therefore can potentially monitor a wider variety of cases. This study reports on the incidence and risk factors for ILI in the UK as measured using Flusurvey, an internet-based open community cohort.

Methods

Upon initial online registration participants were asked background characteristics, and every week were asked to complete a symptoms survey. We compared the representativeness of our sample to the overall population. We used two case definitions of ILI, which differed in whether fever/chills was essential. We calculated ILI incidence week by week throughout the season, and investigated risk factors associated with ever reporting ILI over the course of the season. Risk factor analysis was conducted using binomial regression.

Results

5943 participants joined the survey, and 4532 completed the symptoms survey at least twice. Participants who filled in symptoms surveys at least twice filled in a median of nine symptoms surveys over the course of the study. 46.1% of participants reported at least one episode of ILI, and 6.0% of all reports were positive for ILI. Females had slightly higher incidence, and individuals over 65 had the lowest incidence. Incidence peaked just before Christmas and declined dramatically during school holidays. Multivariate regression showed that, for both definitions of ILI considered, being female, unvaccinated, having underlying health issues, having contact with children, being aged between 35 and 64, and being a smoker were associated with the highest risk of reporting an ILI. The use of public transport was not associated with an increased risk of ILI.

Conclusions

Our results show that internet based surveillance can be used to measure ILI and understand risk factors. Vaccination is shown to be linked to a reduced risk of reporting ILI. Taking public transport does not increase the risk of reporting ILI. Flusurvey and other participatory surveillance techniques can be used to provide reliable information to policy makers in nearly real-time.

Keywords:
Influenza; Online surveillance; Risk factors