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Using Twitter as tool to track side effects from drugs

Tracking a new drug’s
side effects ON twitter

Tracking the safety record of new drugs is a slow and complicated task for the US Food and Drug Administration. Once a drug is on the market, it often takes years before the full range of side effects becomes known, as side effects are reported to the agency mainly by doctors who prescribe the drug.

Thousands of patients, however, use Twitter to share symptoms they’ve developed from their medications, and Boston Children’s Hospital researchers have found that such online postings could be a way to identify problems with drugs sooner.

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In an FDA-funded study published last week in the journal Drug Safety, researchers from Children’s, the FDA, and elsewhere searched Twitter posts mentioning 23 commonly used medications — including antidepressants, sleeping pills, and over-the-counter acetaminophen and ibuprofen — as well as vaccines, over six months between 2012 and 2013. Out of 60,000 tweets mentioning these drugs or vaccines, 4,401 of the postings described side effects that were blamed on the medications or shots.

“The slice of adverse events we saw were not on the severe side,” said study coauthor Dr. John Brownstein, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But these may be symptoms that don’t come to the FDA’s attention because people don’t think of them as severe events and may not see a doctor for them.” D.K.

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