Jan. 15 - As the flu outbreak reaches epidemic levels in the U.S., scientists are turning to weather modeling to help forecast the future seasonal spread of the virus. Rob Muir reports.
It's a familar scene at clinics across the United States but despite an upsurge in vaccinations, the flu has reached epidemic proportions. There's not much more authorities can do, although scientists at Colombia University in New York believe that in the future, they will be far better equipped to spread the word about the spread of the flu. Using web-based estimates from six recent flu seasons in New York City to retrospectively generate weekly flu forecasts, Dr. Jeffrey Shaman was able to pinpoint the peak timing of outbreaks more than seven weeks before they occurred. He says the concept can be applied to future predictions. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JEFFREY SHAMAN, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SCIENCES AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We've been doing this at the municipal scale because the Google Flu Trend Observations are at the municipal scale so we can run the models at a municipal scale: it can run for New York city, we can run it for Miami, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, what have you. And so, the idea there is that we can predict within those localities when the peak timing of influenza will take place. We can also predict total number of cases, perhaps; we can also try to predict the magnitude of the peak - how many cases there are at the peak, that's the type of information we could potentially provide." And when combined with real time data, such as the number of flu-related search qeries from a given area and regional outbreak estimates from health authorities, Shaman says the public can be better informed. He foresees a day when flu warnings are issued much like weather reports. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JEFFREY SHAMAN, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SCIENCES AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "You hear there's an eighty percent chance of rain, you're a lot more likely to take an umbrella that day than if you hear there's a twenty percent chance of rain, okay? So if you have that kind of information that you hear the influenza outbreak is coming, you'll prepare: you're more likely to get vaccinated, perhaps; you're more likely to take other preventative measures; you're more likely if you hear a child's sick and you were going to have a play day with that child, for instance, say 'let's not do it right now, let's do it in a couple weeks.' So, it's that kind of information that I think would be beneficial and people have a right to know." ..and that "right to know", could translate into fewer cases of flu. It's an idea that Shaman believes has the potential to go viral.