Sales of over-the-counter (OTC) healthcare products have significant potential as early indicators of disease outbreaks. Sick individuals treat themselves with nonprescription cough syrups, flu remedies, and diarrhea remedies. In addition to medications, they also purchase thermometers and other items for their illness, such as tissues, orange juice, and chicken soup. They frequently make purchases before seeking medical care or even instead of seeking medical care. People purchase these products both for themselves and for their children.
The effort that a biosurveillance organization must expend to obtain these data from stores is low in comparison to other types of surveillance data. Pharmacies, grocery stores, and other retail sources of such products collect sales data electronically. In the United States, the effort required on the part of a biosurveillance organization to obtain daily data on sales of 18 OTC product categories at the level of zip code has been reduced to zero by the National Retail Data Monitor project, which collects OTC sales data nationwide for purposes of biosurveillance (Wagner et al., 2004, Wagner et al., 2003).
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