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Computer Model Predicts Regional Peaks in Flu Outbreaks

Researchers adapt techniques used in weather prediction (Nov. 26)

Scientists at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have developed a system to predict the timing and severity of seasonal influenza outbreaks that could one day help health officials and the general public better prepare for them. The system adapts techniques used in modern weather prediction to turn real-time, Web-based estimates of influenza infection into local forecasts of seasonal flu.

The results were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Year to year and region to region, there is huge variability in the peak of flu season, which, in temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, can happen as early as October or as late as April. The new forecast system could provide “a window into what can happen week to week as flu prevalence rises and falls,” says Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia.

As a test case, Shaman and Alicia Karspeck, PhD, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, used Web-based estimates of flu-related sickness from the 2003–2008 influenza seasons in New York City to retrospectively generate weekly flu forecasts. They found that the technique could predict the peak timing of the outbreak more than 7 weeks in advance of the actual peak.

In the future, such flu forecasts might be disseminated on local television news programs along with the weather report, says Shaman. Like the weather, flu conditions vary from region to region; Atlanta might peak weeks ahead of Anchorage.

“Flu forecasting has the potential to significantly improve our ability to prepare for and manage the seasonal flu outbreaks that strike each year,” says Irene Eckstrand, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which provided funding for the study.

Worldwide, influenza kills an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 people each year; in the U.S., about 35,000 die from the flu every year.

Shaman plans to test the computer model in other localities across the country using up-to-date data. This is necessary, he says, since “there is no guarantee that just because the method works in New York it will work in Miami.”

Source: Mailman School of Public Health; November 26, 2102.

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