UV Gadgets and Virtual Docs Take On a Very Bad Flu Season

Flu fighting gets an injection of high tech

Sick women communicating with a doctor on her computer
Photo: iStock Photo
Advertisement

Hand sanitizer just isn’t cutting it this winter. Much of the US remains in the throws of its worst flu season this decade, according to federal officials. One out of every 13 doctor visits during the second week of February was for fever, cough and other flu-like symptoms, matching the peak levels during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported this month.

We wondered if there was any new technology out there that might help. It turns out some engineers are on it, with new software and sanitizing gadgets. In the hope that it might inspire further ingenuity or provide a resource for consumers, here’s our short list of the latest trends in flu fighting tech.​

1. Far-UVC light kills airborne viruses without harming human tissue

For those of you sitting at your desks, listening to your office mates sneeze their way down the corridors, take heart: Researchers at Columbia University are developing overhead lights that can kill airborne viruses and bacteria, harmlessly decontaminating the space around you. 

The lights emit a narrow spectrum of ultraviolet C (UVC) light, called far-UVC, at a wavelength of about 222 nanometers. This month, a team out of Columbia University Medical Center reported for the first time that a very low dose of far-UVC light kills more than 95% of airborne H1N1 influenza in its path. 

Yet the light doesn’t harm mammalian cells, according to previous research by the Columbia team, led by David Brenner and David Welch. “It can penetrate bacteria and viruses because they are much smaller,” says Welch. 

Far-UVC differs from conventional UVC light, which, at a wavelength of 254 nanometers, can penetrate human skin can lead to skin cancer and cataracts. Conventional UVC germicidal light has been used for decades in enclosed spaces in hospitals to kill bacteria and viruses on surgical equipment.  

The Columbia researchers’ next move is to test the effects of long-term exposure to far-UVC light in mice, and eventually in humans, Welch says. If the tech proves safe, the researchers envision installing the invisible lights in high traffic areas of doctors offices, hospitals, schools, airports and other public spaces. 

2. UV Gadgets Sanitize Personal Items

While researchers develop and test far-UVC lights, there’s no shortage of conventional UV sanitizing gadgets available commercially now. These enclosed devices promise to reduce pathogens on phones, toothbrushes, and other surfaces. 

Type in “UV smartphone sanitizer” in Google shopping, and you’ll get a slew of options under $100. Many look like light-up jewelry boxes. Some are toaster-sized and can hold lots of different kinds of objects, like baby toys and keys.  

Whether these gadgets will reduce risk of picking up a flu virus is unclear. With so many different kinds of surfaces within our grasp, keeping germs off one item while touching dozens of others might prove futile. 

3. An electrical turbo-boost to the chemical sanitizer

To sanitize every surface, some people are turning to electrostatic sprayers. These machines apply an electrical charge to disinfecting chemicals and spray them out in a mist. The droplets seek out particles of the opposite charge on surfaces, spreading the chemical evenly and thoroughly, according to makers of these machines.

This flu season, local news reports of schools using electrostatic sprayers popped up everywhere, from Cleburne, Texas to Allentown, Pa. There are lots of commercial versions of the device, including the cordless Victory Sprayer and the more industrial Jon-Don MaxCharge. Clorox has one, and says it will cover 1672 square meters in an hour.

4. Virtual Docs

In an effort to skip the doctor’s office altogether, more people are staying in bed and turning to video doctor appointments. These are services that enable patients to do a virtual office visit—a video call with a doctor—and in some cases, get a prescription through that call. 

Telemedicine providers, such as Doctor on Demand, American Well, and Teladoc, are reporting huge increases in flu-related calls this season. 

Some health insurance providers include the video calls in their coverage. And if not, out-of-pocket costs aren’t too bad. Doctor on Demand, for example, charges $75 for a 15-minute consultation for those who are uninsured.  

The service might be good in a pinch, but here’s the downside: It often doesn’t eliminate an eventual in-person visit, which may actually increase overall health care spending, according to a study published last year in Health Affairs.

5. Outbreak prediction efforts continue

Predicting flu outbreaks or tracking them in real time could help guide public health authorities in their relief strategies. The strategy often involves collecting and analyzing information from social media and search engine data, and combining it with traditional public health data to try to predict flu symptoms with machine learning tools. 

Google Flu Trends launched this sort of web-based tracker in 2008, but shut down its public website in 2015, saying that it would continue to provide data to the CDC. Since then, similar projects have continued, such as Booz Allen Hamilton’s Epidemico

The CDC in 2013 held a competition that encouraged the use of social media to predict flu. The aim was to improve upon its domestic influenza surveillance system, which lags behind real-time flu activity. Since then, the agency has continued to work with contest participants to refine prediction systems. The CDC in 2016 launched FluSight which publicly posts each team’s flu forecasts. 

6. Crowdsourcing flu symptoms

People who want to take a more active role in tracking flu outbreaks can participate in a crowdsourced symptom trackers. These rely on users to report their symptoms through an app or website, which maps the collective information for all users to see.  

For example, Flu Near You users report their symptoms, and can look at trends in outbreaks reported collectively by all users compared with the CDC. 

Then there’s the Kinsa Smart Thermometer, which is an actual thermometer that sends the user’s temperature reading to an app. The app’s crowdsourcing feature allows users to share their temps and symptoms and track that activity geographically to see if others are experiencing the same ailments.

Such a system could prove useful for highly-localized tracking of symptoms, such as in schools or among Olympic athletes

Researchers at the University of Iowa recently tested the Kinsa thermometer to see how well it performs. They found that Kinsa’s data highly correlates with information from traditional public health surveillance systems, and can be used to improve forecasting flu-like activity up to three weeks in advance. The report was published February 9 in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

About the Human OS blog

IEEE Spectrum’s biomedical engineering blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.