Scientists were able to reliably predict the timing of the 2012-2013 influenza season up to nine weeks in advance of its peak. The first large-scale demonstration of the flu forecasting system by scientists at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health was carried out in 108 cities across the United States.
Results are published online in the journal Nature Communications.
The flu forecasting system adapts techniques used in modern weather prediction to turn real-time, Web-based estimates of influenza infection into local forecasts of the seasonal peak by locality. Influenza activity peaked in cities in the southeast as early as December 2012, but crested in most of the country in the first weeks of 2013.
Year to year, the flu season is highly variable. It can happen anywhere from December to April. But when it arrives, cities can go from practically no cases to thousands in a very short time. "Having greater advance warning of the timing and intensity of influenza outbreaks could prevent a portion of these influenza infections by providing actionable information to officials and the general public," says first author Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
For the public, the flu forecast could promote greater vaccination, the exercise of care around people sneezing and coughing, and a better awareness of personal health. For health officials, it could inform decisions on how many vaccines and antiviral drugs to stockpile, and in the case of a virulent outbreak, whether other measures, like closing schools, are necessary.
The new study builds on the researchers' 2012 study that used the system to retrospectively predict the peak of the flu in New York City for the years 2003-2008. That research was limited to one city and performed as a test of the system. The current stud
|Contact: Timothy S. Paul|
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health