From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published November 27, 2012 04:17 PM

Forecasting Flu Outbreaks with Weather Technology

Flu season often coincides with winter months as it has been found that the influenza virus lasts longer in cold, dry air. Knowing this, researchers have developed a framework for initializing real-time forecasts of seasonal influenza outbreaks using a technique used for weather prediction. The availability of real-time, web-based estimates of local influenza infection rates can make quantitative forecasting possible.


Scientists at Columbia University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have announced a new system that adapts techniques used in modern weather prediction to generate local forecasts of seasonal influenza outbreaks. By predicting the timing and severity of the outbreaks, the system can eventually help health officials and the general public better prepare for them.

Each year, flu season peaks at various times from region to region. Pinpointing the outbreaks with the new forecast system can provide "a window into what can happen week to week as flu prevalence rises and falls," says lead author Jeffrey Shaman, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.

Shaman and co-author Alicia Karspeck, an NCAR scientist, used web-based estimates of flu-related sickness from the winters of 2003–04 to 2008–09 in New York City to generate weekly flu forecasts. Consequently, researchers found that the technique could predict the peak timing of the outbreak more than seven weeks in advance of the actual peak.

Karspeck says, "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."

In the U.S. alone, influenza kills about 35,000 people each year, so predicting flu outbreaks according to weather predictions of specific regions could allow us to limit the number of influenza cases and therefore help save lives. For example, a flu forecast could influence individuals to get a vaccine, stress caution when around people who exude flu-like symptoms, and create awareness for monitoring one's own health.

For health personnel, the forecast could help inform decision-makers on how many vaccines and antiviral drugs to stockpile, and prompt office or school closures if necessary.

Making this information accessible to the public either online or broadcast on local news stations during weather segments, as Shaman suggests, will allow for increased preparedness of flu outbreaks.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Girl with cold image via Shutterstock.

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