New flu tool is able to predict outbreaks, researchers show

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Jeffrey Shaman
Jeffrey Shaman

With the flu season kicking off early and strong in December, a new system purported to tie together weather forecasting with outbreak predictions was unveiled.

Columbia University and National Center for Atmospheric Research scientists teamed up to create a forecasting model that they say can predict the peak of a flu outbreak seven weeks before it strikes. They based their prediction model around how wintertime flu epidemics tend to follow extremely dry weather. 

By using the flu tool, it is possible that future flu forecasts would be included in local weather reports, leading listeners to “develop an intuition of what we should do to protect ourselves in response to different forecast outcomes,” said report author Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. For healthcare providers, that could trigger the stocking of extra vaccines or reinforcing hand hygiene protocols. 

The project is an excellent example of cross-disciplinary collaboration, co-author and NCAR scientist Alicia Karspeck said.

“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,” she said. 

Study results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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