Flu Forecasting Using Computer Modeling
November 27, 2012

Study Looks At Possibility Of Flu Forecasting

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Researchers from Columbia University´s Mailman School of Public Health recently revealed that they have developed a new computer model that is able to predict high points during influenza outbreaks, adapting methods seen in weather forecasting to provide real-time, web-based predictions on infections of influenza.

The findings were recently featured in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Because we are all familiar with weather broadcasts, when we hear that there is a 80% chance of rain, we all have an intuitive sense of whether or not we should carry an umbrella," explained Jeffrey Shaman, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University´s Mailman School of Public Health, in a prepared statement. "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."

More and more, the flu season varies by time and place — it can happen as early as October or as late as April. The researchers aimed to have the forecast system provide information on what might happen on any given week depending on the highs and lows of flu season. Pooling data from 2003 to 2008, they utilized the web-based estimates of sickness due to the flu to produce weekly flu forecasts. The team of investigators also discovered that this method could help them estimate the peak timing of a flu outbreak as much as seven weeks before the actual peak hit.

With these findings, the researchers believe that, in the future, it is possible to produce flu forecasts like those weather reports that are currently seen on TV. Similar to how weather reports vary depending on location, the flu reports would have different results depending on different regions. For example, Atlanta, Georgia might peak earlier in the flu season as compared to Anchorage, Alaska.

As well, health forecasting would have an impact on people throughout society. For individuals, a flu forecast could inspire individuals to become more in tune with their daily body functioning, to get vaccines whenever needed, and to be extra careful when surrounded by other people who are coughing or sneezing. For health officials, the flu forecasting would allow them to become more informed on the number of vaccines or antiviral drugs needed to stockpile or, if there was an emergency health situation, how they should react or what actions should they take.

"Flu forecasting has the potential to significantly improve our ability to prepare for and manage the seasonal flu outbreaks that strike each year," remarked Irene Eckstrand, a member of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in the statement.

Moving forward with the study, the researchers plan to experiment with the model in various locations throughout the United States with current data.

The research comes at a particularly interesting time as individual countries grapple with the effects of influenza. According to Columbia University´s Mailman School of Public Health, 250,000 to 500,000 people die each year due to influenza. In the U.S., approximately 35,000 people die from the flu each year.