Background: Routine influenza surveillance, based on laboratory confirmation of viral infection, often fails to estimate the true burden of influenza-like illness (ILI) in the community because those with ILI often manage their own symptoms without visiting a health professional. Internet-based surveillance can complement this traditional surveillance by measuring symptoms and health behavior of a population with minimal time delay. Flusurvey, the UK’s largest crowd-sourced platform for surveillance of influenza, collects routine data on more than 6000 voluntary participants and offers real-time estimates of ILI circulation. However, one criticism of this method of surveillance is that it is only able to assess ILI, rather than virologically confirmed influenza. Objective: We designed a pilot study to see if it was feasible to ask individuals from the Flusurvey platform to perform a self-swabbing task and to assess whether they were able to collect samples with a suitable viral content to detect an influenza virus in the laboratory. Methods: Virological swabbing kits were sent to pilot study participants, who then monitored their ILI symptoms over the influenza season (2014-2015) through the Flusurvey platform. If they reported ILI, they were asked to undertake self-swabbing and return the swabs to a Public Health England laboratory for multiplex respiratory virus polymerase chain reaction testing. Results: A total of 700 swab kits were distributed at the start of the study; from these, 66 participants met the definition for ILI and were asked to return samples. In all, 51 samples were received in the laboratory, 18 of which tested positive for a viral cause of ILI (35%). Conclusions: This demonstrated proof of concept that it is possible to apply self-swabbing for virological laboratory testing to an online cohort study. This pilot does not have significant numbers to validate whether Flusurvey surveillance accurately reflects influenza infection in the community, but highlights that the methodology is feasible. Self-swabbing could be expanded to larger online surveillance activities, such as during the initial stages of a pandemic, to understand community transmission or to better assess interseasonal activity.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This research was funded by an i-sense exploratory project, as part of a larger Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council UK (EPSRC) project EP/K031953/1.
©Clare Wenham, Eleanor R Gray, Candice E Keane, Matthew Donati, Daniela Paolotti, Richard Pebody, Ellen Fragaszy, Rachel A McKendry, W John Edmunds.
- Cohort study
- Influenza-like illness
- Virological confirmation