Forecasting Flu Like the Weather?

Forecast system predicts flu outbreaks with weather techniques

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Overcast with a chance of flu? With a flu prediction system that works like weather forecasts, you might hear about an influenza front closing in on your region.

That's the idea behind adapting weather forecasting techniques to create flu forecasts. Scientists are developing a system that could predict regional flu outbreaks weeks before they hit, based on the flu's connections to weather systems.

"Take precautions against flu - wash your hands."

The study was led by Dr. Jeffery Shaman, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Flu season lasts from October until May each year. Dr. Shaman's previous work found that flu outbreaks tend to follow dry weather. He and his co-author used that finding to create a prediction model, along with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, humidity forecasts, and flu data from past seasons.

Looking back into web-based estimates of flu activity in previous seasons, they found that their prediction model created forecasts that matched up with how flu played out each year.

Last year was relatively light on flu activity, but some years have dramatic spikes in certain months – when everyone is coming down with flu. Dr. Shaman told US News and World Report that these spikes will be the type of activity that his model would be best at predicting.

"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 a 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."

The forecasts could be used by local health officials to warn people who may be vulnerable to flu, like the elderly, to take extra precautions against flu. Flu can travel fast in enclosed spaces like nursing homes.

It could also help public health agencies know when to stock up on vaccines and antiviral medications.

But don't expect to see flu forecasts hitting your local news just yet. Dr. Shaman plans to test the model in regions across the country using more current data. The study was published in November 2012.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 30, 2012
Last Updated:
April 11, 2013