Researchers at Columbia University in New York and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said predicting the timing and severity of flu outbreaks would help health officials and the general public better prepare for them.
The peak of flu season can vary widely from region to region and from year to year, but the new forecast system can provide "a window into what can happen week to week as flu prevalence rises and falls," Columbia environmental health sciences Professor Jeffrey Shaman said.
Wintertime U.S. flu epidemics tend to occur following very dry weather, the researchers said, and a prediction model incorporating this finding used estimates of flu-related sickness from the winters of 2003-04 to 2008-09 in New York City to retrospectively generate weekly flu forecasts in a test, an NCAR release reported Tuesday.
The researchers said the technique could predict the peak timing of the outbreak more than seven weeks in advance of the actual peak.
"Analogous to weather prediction, this system can potentially be used to estimate the probability of regional outbreaks of the flu several weeks in advance," NCAR scientist Alicia Karspeck said.
In the future flu forecasts could conceivably be disseminated on local television news program along with the weather report, Shaman said.
"Because we are all familiar with weather broadcasts, when we hear that there is an 80 percent chance of rain, we all have an intuitive sense of whether or not we should carry an umbrella," he said. "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."