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SALT LAKE CITY — While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are tracking occurrences of the flu this season, Google is taking it one step further by predicting outbreaks.
Google.org, the nonprofit arm of the search giant, has predicted flu outbreaks worldwide since 2006. The company uses data compiled from millions of searches to estimate how many people currently have the flu.
"We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms," the company said. "Of course, not every person who searches for 'flu' is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together."
The graph of U.S. flu activity compiled by the CDC compared to the Google Flu Trends estimate over the course of six years is startling: peaks and valleys in Google's estimate are nearly identical to those in the CDC's data.
That level of accuracy is why many are concerned that Google is calling this flu season far larger than anything else the company has on record. A spike in cases of the flu that began in November seems to have slowed down, but is nowhere near leveling off or returning to normal rates:
Utah has not fared much better, although it, like other western states, is seeing a "high" level of activity, compared to "intense" levels of activity further east.
So far, at least 233 people have been hospitalized in Utah this flu season, according to numbers released Wednesday by the Utah Department of Health.
According to Google, tracking flu trends and predicting outbreaks before they happen can be an important part of reducing the number of people infected.
"If a new strain of influenza virus emerges under certain conditions, a pandemic could ensue with the potential to cause millions of deaths," the company said, claiming the estimates could help health professionals respond early to seasonal epidemics and pandemics.
Nationwide, the CDC has reported 22,048 cases of the flu between Sept. 30 and the end of 2012. That number for the same time period in 2011 was 849.
"In an immediate sense; we were a little spoiled last year," Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News. "Last year, we had fewer influenza cases than had ever been recorded before."
Schaffner said it is important to get vaccinated, even this late in flu season. But demand for the flu vaccine this year has left some places across the country short, according to NBC News.
There is enough of the vaccine for everyone, according to the CDC, but it may be difficult to get ahold of.
"We understand there are some spot shortages here and there," said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman. "People have taken note that we're experiencing a moderate to severe season."
In Utah, health care professionals are recommending getting a flu shot as the best way to prevent a widespread outbreak. The Utah Department Health has a flu vaccination locator for those who still need the shot.