Forget your flu shot again? No worries.
Soon your TV weather person may be warning you about the next flu
outbreak in plenty of time to get vaccinated against it, thanks to a
computer model that borrows from weather forecasting science.
The new flu forecast model was
developed by public health researcher Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia
University and Alicia Karspeck, a scientist at the National Center
for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The model grew out of previous work
in which Shaman and his colleagues found that wintertime U.S. flu
epidemics tend to breakout after bouts of very dry weather.
Shaman and Karspeck developed the new
model and then tested it with past flu outbreak data from New York
City. The model succeeded in predicting flu outbreaks and peaks for
the winters of 2003-04 to 2008-09 more than seven weeks in advance.
If the model works as well in other locations it could very well turn
out to be the biggest advance in fighting the flu since vaccines and
antiviral drugs. That's not small potatoes, considering that each
year influenza kills between 250,000 to 500,000 worldwide and about
35,000 in the United States.
“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 in an NCAR press release. “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.”
That doesn't mean wearing a facemasks
for weeks, of course. It's more likely that people will simply be
more motivated and reminded to get flu shots, more careful around
people who seem sick and monitor their own health more carefully. For
health officials it could help them decide how much vaccine and
antiviral drugs to have on hand, and where to have it. It might even
speed up decisions like when schools should be closed if a
particularly virulent strain breaks out.
“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,” said Karspeck in an NCAR release.
“This has been a tremendously fruitful cross-disciplinary
Shaman and Karspeck have published
their results in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Science.
IMAGE: Man sneazing. (Corbis)