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Researchers Create Flu-Predicting System Based on Weather Patterns

Update Date: Dec 04, 2013 01:16 PM EST
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Even though there is a new flu vaccine every year with government agencies recommending people to get vaccinated, vaccinations rates remain relatively low. When the flu virus starts to affect people, it could lead to an outbreak that becomes hard to control. Due to the fact that seasonal flu outbreaks could be extremely deadly, researchers have attempted to create a system using weather forecasting that would predict a U.S. city's chances of an outbreak.

For this project, the researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health relied on weather forecasting to help predict when a potential flu outbreak would occur in different cities across the country. The researchers' model used data from Google Flu Trends and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Google Flu Trends provided information on flu searches done on the engine and the CDC had data on lab-tested flu cases. The combination of the data allowed the model to predict the percentages of flulike cases that are actually due to the flu and not other viruses. The model also has information on how influenza viruses spread within a community.

The team tested this program on 108 cities during last year's flu season. The time frame they looked at was late November 2012 through to the first few weeks of 2013. The results revealed that the model could predict an influenza peak in over 60 percent of the cities. An influenza peak suggests that more people would get infected during that particular time. The model predicted the outbreaks from two to four weeks in advance. The team reported that the model's predictions were more and more accurate as the flu season progressed. Based on last year's flu season, the team reported that after four weeks into the flu season, 63 percent of the predictions were accurate. The percentage increased to 74 percent after a few more weeks into the flu season.

"Having greater advance warning of the timing and intensity of influenza outbreaks could prevent a portion of these influenza infections," said study researcher Jeffrey Shaman, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York reported by FOX News.

The researchers hope that this model could help cities prepare for a flu outbreak. Since the models predict an influenza peak before it occurs, cities could start preventive measures early. The researchers stated that predictions in smaller cities tended to be more accurate. The researchers reasoned that for larger cities, the model could be more accurate if it was used on different regions of the city as opposed to the city as a whole.

Shaman explained that city health officials could "determine areas that are in greater need of vaccine supplies, where antiviral drugs should be directed and whether or not school closing is needed in the face of a highly virulent outbreak."

The study was published in Nature Communications.

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