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Fair, but with a risk of flu

Posted 28/11/2012 by sevans

We are used to receiving information about ozone levels and pollen counts along with the general weather forecast. But from next year it appears that forecasters in the US may also be offering up tips on the risks of flu in any particular location. The idea is the brainchild of US researchers, who say it will help target vaccines and antivirals to areas of greatest need, according to a report this week by Reuters. And they should also be valuable in making decisions about whether to get vaccinated – or give a wide berth to others who sneeze and cough a lot.

Reuters reports that the group, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and at Columbia University, has carried out a pilot study in New York, using computer modelling of flu trends data available on Google to generate retrospective weekly forecasts from 2003 to 2008. Along with an epidemiological model revealing who is susceptible to flu, and how infection progresses in a population, the researchers used real-time data on Google Flu Trends to determine where flu is occurring.

Based on this information, they ‘predicted’ the peak of the outbreak more than seven weeks before it occurred according to historical records. Now that the method has been shown to work, the next step will be to apply the approach to other cities and regions, and against different types of flu.

Influenza kills 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide ever year, according to the Reuters report. Any information that could improve preparation and management of yearly flu outbreaks should be helpful. 

Meeting demand for flu vaccines – particularly in the event of a pandemic – nevertheless remains a problem. Most annual flu vaccines – administered either by injection or as a spray - are made in chicken eggs, after a decision each February by the World Health Organization about which three flu strains to target that winter. 

However, with new and faster ways to manufacture vaccines by egg or cell-based technologies under development, and a universal vaccine that won’t need changing every year currently in trials, the longer term flu forecast looks very bright.

Cath O’Driscoll, Deputy editor

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