Cloudy with a chance of flu? Study offers influenza forecast

Influenza forecast

New research suggests it may be possible to forecast flu outbreaks in much the same way meteorologists predict weather, a potential boon for public health officials and consumers, one of the study's authors said on Tuesday.

Using real-time U.S. data gathered by Google Inc, along with a computer model showing how flu spreads, the researchers offered a system that could generate local forecasts of the severity and length of a particular flu outbreak.

This kind of forecasting could improve preparation and management of annual flu outbreaks in the United States,

said Irene Eckstrand of the National Institutes of Health.

Influenza kills 250,000 to 500,000 people each year around the globe; the U.S. annual flu death toll is 35,000.

If the forecasts are reasonably accurate, they could help public health officials target vaccines and anti-viral drugs to areas of greatest need, said study co-author Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

If you have a six-week forecast with good confidence that you're going to have an outbreak in New York City and nothing's going on in L.A., you'd send the vaccines there (to New York) because there's enough time to distribute them ... before there's an actual outbreak, Shaman said.

He suggested that flu forecasts might be distributed through TV weather programming. Individuals then could decide whether to get the flu vaccine, keep their distance from people who sneeze or cough and closely monitor symptoms.

This pilot study, published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked only at the New York City area, using data from 2003 through 2008.

Trackinf flumovements

Even so, if all goes well, the system could offer rudimentary forecasts as soon as next year's flu season, Shaman said. It might be possible to issue a few flu forecasts this season, though those would be in test-case form, he said.

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