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J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2003 Nov-Dec;10(6):555-62. Epub 2003 Aug 4.

Detection of pediatric respiratory and diarrheal outbreaks from sales of over-the-counter electrolyte products.

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  • 1The RODS Laboratory, Center for Biomedical Informatics, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.



To determine whether sales of electrolyte products contain a signal of outbreaks of respiratory and diarrheal disease in children and, if so, how much earlier a signal relative to hospital diagnoses.


Retrospective analysis was conducted of sales of electrolyte products and hospital diagnoses for six urban regions in three states for the period 1998 through 2001.


Presence of signal was ascertained by measuring correlation between electrolyte sales and hospital diagnoses and the temporal relationship that maximized correlation. Earliness was the difference between the date that the exponentially weighted moving average (EWMA) method first detected an outbreak from sales and the date it first detected the outbreak from diagnoses. The coefficient of determination (r2) measured how much variance in earliness resulted from differences in sales' and diagnoses' signal strengths.


The correlation between electrolyte sales and hospital diagnoses was 0.90 (95% CI, 0.87-0.93) at a time offset of 1.7 weeks (95% CI, 0.50-2.9), meaning that sales preceded diagnoses by 1.7 weeks. EWMA with a nine-sigma threshold detected the 18 outbreaks on average 2.4 weeks (95% CI, 0.1-4.8 weeks) earlier from sales than from diagnoses. Twelve outbreaks were first detected from sales, four were first detected from diagnoses, and two were detected simultaneously. Only 26% of variance in earliness was explained by the relative strength of the sales and diagnoses signals (r2 = 0.26).


Sales of electrolyte products contain a signal of outbreaks of respiratory and diarrheal diseases in children and usually are an earlier signal than hospital diagnoses.

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