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FluTracking survey developed in Hunter used in global fight against COVID, influenza

Craig Dalton remembers a moment of doubt among his team who were developing an online flu survey back in 2005.

The public health physician recalls the survey developer pushing himself back in his chair and telling his colleagues he was worried no-one would use it.

It turns out, the fear was unfounded.

The FluTracking survey his team created to help monitor respiratory diseases works in real time by surveying people in the community about their symptoms.

It has been adopted overseas, and in some countries it is one of the main surveillance systems for influenza-like illness and, of course, COVID-like illness.

Its success, in part, lies with the fact that the survey takes less than a minute.

At its inception in 2006, it was being used by about 400 people in the Hunter New England region.

Now, more than 60,000 people across Australia access it each week.

Dr Craig Dalton is one of the physicians who worked on FluTracking.(Supplied: University of Newcastle)

“We didn’t know what to expect when we felt the survey out in 2006.” Dr Dalton says.

“We didn’t know whether we would get five responses, 10 responses, no responses.”

During the height of the pandemic, up to 150,000 people a week responded to the survey and their responses gave important insights into the coronavirus crisis.

Importantly, Dr Dalton says the survey showed that standard testing, such as PCR swabs, were not reflective of the true number of active cases in Australia.

“FluTracking showed the actual testing rates weren’t high enough to pick up that many cases,” he says.

“It gave us a really good reality check on what proportion of cases we were missing.”

Survey captures real-time experience

FluTracking was inspired by a 2005 Swedish study of a telephone survey to track trends in the spread and severity of the flu.

The use of the survey — created by physicians with help from the NSW Health Department and the University of Newcastle — has spread to New Zealand, Hong Kong and Argentina.

Dr Nick Walsh speaking at a podium.
Dr Nick Walsh helped get funding from DFAT to set up FluTracking in Argentina.(Supplied: Dr Nick Walsh)

He says the survey creates a window into what is happening in real time in the community.

“FluTracking plays a special role because it goes directly to people and gets their actual experience on the ground,” he says.

Survey translated into Spanish

The push to get FluTracking into Argentina came from Nick Walsh, who worked with the Pan American Health Organization, an arm of the World Health Organization.

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