Scientists use weather forecast techniques for flu outbreak prediction

Scientists at Columbia University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a study this week that demonstrates the adaptation of modern weather prediction to predict the timing and severity of flu outbreaks.

By generating local forecasts of seasonal flu outbreaks, health officials and the public may be able to better prepare for them. The study was published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"(The system provides) a window into what can happen week to week as flu prevalence rises and falls," Jeffrey Shaman, the lead author of the study, said.

In previous work, Shaman and his colleagues found that U.S. flu epidemics in the wintertime typically followed very dry weather. The team used online estimates of flu-related sickness from the winters of 2003 to 2008 in New York to create a technique to predict the peak of flu outbreaks more than seven weeks in advance.

"Analogous to weather prediction, this system can potentially be used to estimate the probability of regional outbreaks of the flu several weeks in advance," Alicia Karspeck, the co-author of the paper, said. "One exciting element of this work is that we've applied quantitative forecasting techniques developed within the geosciences community to the challenge of real-time infectious disease prediction. This has been a tremendously fruitful cross-disciplinary collaboration."

Shaman said the flu forecasts could be given on the local news alongside the weather report.

"Because we are all familiar with weather broadcasts, when we hear that there is a 80 percent chance of rain, we all have an intuitive sense of whether or not we should carry an umbrella," Shaman said. "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."

The flu forecast could prompt individuals to get vaccines, monitor how they feel and exercise care around people coughing and sneezing. Health officials could use the information to determine how many antivirals and vaccines to stockpile.

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

Shaman said that his team will test the model in other locations throughout the country.