Restless Leg, Mumps and Other Maladies

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David McNew / Getty

A child gets a Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination (MMR) .

Sitting on the couch watching TV, my foot started its nervous tapping, irritating my wife sitting next to me. Then it happened. Dancing with the Stars judge Len Goodman commented that the dancer's foot was moving so fast it looked like he had restless leg syndrome. My ears perked up. Having seen advertisements for pharmaceuticals to treat this condition, and not knowing what it was, I searched the Web for "restless leg syndrome" in an act of self diagnosis and began to wonder: What influences our searches for medical conditions?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, restless leg syndrome, also known as Wittmaack-Ekbom's syndrome is a neurological disorder "characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable urge to move when at rest in an effort to relieve these feelings." The condition may affect up to 10% of the U.S. population, according to the Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation. I can't say that I had any unpleasant sensations, I'm just a nervous foot-tapper, yet hearing the term on television, seeing the advertisement for treatment and searching on the term, I could be easily convinced I had the disease. According to search term data, searches on the condition reached their peak soon after the FDA approved requip in May of 2005, one of the first drugs targeted specifically at the condition.

Checking the top disease search terms reveals some interesting patterns. Searches for "depression" for example are seasonal, showing peaks during winter holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some diseases that were "hot" in 2006 are not in 2007. In late March 2006, 206 cases of mumps had been reported in Iowa (normally 5 cases per year are reported in the state). Searches for "mumps" catapulted to the top of the list surpassing sexually transmitted diseases, which usually dominate the top 10 disease searches. The Iowa cases led to nationwide concern of a possible epidemic, which in turn caused a domino effect of searches on other diseases, namely autism.

While seemingly unrelated, the Iowa outbreak renewed the debate about whether there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, a developmental disease resulting from a disorder of the central nervous system. In 1998 a smallish study of 12 autistic children raised questions about a connection, but subsequent studies have cast doubt on any relationship between the vaccine and autism, which, according to the National Institute of Health, affects 2-6 children per 1000. Still, examining search phrases that contained "autism" during the peak weeks around early May 2006 revealed that Internet searchers' concern about the disease turned to the disease's symptoms with top autism queries including "autism symptoms," "signs of autism," and "symptoms of autism." In April 2007, autism searches experienced another surge, but this time for a different reason, April is Autism Awareness Month.

Search term data does reveal that awareness months actually work. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. During that month, searches for a disease, whose outcome can be dependent on early detection, increase over 300% from the previous month. If awareness months are driving searches for information on breast cancer, it's entirely possible that these marketing events are saving lives through early detection.

Logically, the prevalence of different diseases in our society should be mirrored in search term data. But our search patterns show that not to be true. For better or worse our awareness of health issues can be swayed by a number of factors. Even ballroom dancing reality shows.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.