Scientists in the U.S. have developed a system to predict the timing and severity of possible flu outbreaks adapted from weather prediction techniques.
In future, flu forecasts could be publicized much as weather forecasts are over radio, television and other channels of communication, say scientists from Columbia University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
"Because we are all familiar with weather broadcasts, when we hear that there is a 80 per cent chance of rain, we all have an intuitive sense of whether or not we should carry an umbrella," says Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and one of the study’s co-authors. The report is published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"I expect we will develop a similar comfort level and confidence in flu forecasts and develop an intuition of what we should do to protect ourselves in response to different forecast outcomes."
Working with Alicia Karspeck of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Shaman used a weather prediction method in which real-time observational data is incorporated into a numerical model to create predictions
The researchers used information from Google Flu Trends – which estimates outbreaks based on the number of flu-related internet searches in a given region – and incorporated previous findings that revealed U.S. flu epidemics tended to occur after very dry weather. All that information was applied using weather prediction models.
They concentrated on the winters of 2003 to 2004 and 2008 to 2009 in the New York City area.
The scientists were then able to generate weekly flu forecasts in that region for the winter of 2010 and 2011 and found they were able to predict the peak of an outbreak more than seven weeks ahead.
"The forecast system can provide "a window into what can happen week to week as flu prevalence rises and falls," said Shaman.
The new technique could be a boon for health services as flu seasons cover a period from October to April and differ from region to region.
It would help authorities prepare and manage flu outbreaks by stockpiling vaccines or closing schools while also prompting people to get vaccinated weeks ahead of a potential outbreak.
Influenza kills an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people each year around the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Shaman and his team plan to expand their study to include other areas of the U.S. to see if their new technique is just as effective in other regions.
"There is no guarantee that just because the method works in New York, it will work in Miami," he said.