With the delightful news that this year’s flu vaccinations failed to include a primary flu strain that experts believe could dominate the flu season, many that got a flu shot were left singing the potential flu blues.
But fear not! There’s a new flu avoidance tool that is strangely similar to your local weather report, that is predicting — or at least providing an educated guess — when and where this year’s flu storms will hit.
CNN reports this flu misery avoidance tool is a flu-forecasting model, developed by infectious disease experts at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, that takes a huge leap past other current models which map the flu by looking backward, while this new model maps future flu trends by looking forward.
The Columbia team of experts won a contest called the “Predict the Influenza Season Challenge,” put on by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The idea that led to their flu contest victory involved creating a mathematical formula to use for weather forecasting and plugging in flu data. By visiting their flu-mapping website, one can see an interactive map of the U.S. that uses real-time data to show where the flu is currently prevalent and the volume of cases in that area.
A “Season-to-date” shows where the flu has been and how many people got sick, with another tab that has a drop down menu that allows you to pick past weeks.
A “Forecasts” tab shows graphs that map the predicted severity of the flu in different U.S. cities in the coming months. A menu to the side of the graphs lets you pick the city. For instance, Sacramento, California, is supposed to be hit hardest December 27, and if you have plans to visit Memphis, Tennessee, and wish to avoid the flu, you may want to plan your trip some time other than between December 20 and mid-January.
Below the cities are the states which give you a state-wide look at any specific state’s flu forecast. For example, Nebraska will be hit hardest on January 10, should the flu forecasts prove accurate.
Jeffrey Sharman, a professor and member of the Columbia infectious-disease team that created the flu-forecasting tool, says it can help people better prepare for the flu-season while also reminding them to get a flu-shot.
“This provides people a window into the future and what pathogens might be coming down the pike. It may help parents decide when to schedule their children’s play dates or it may also help remind people to think about getting vaccinated for influenza.”
The new flu-forecasting tool has arrived with impeccable timing; the CDC is predicting a particularly bad flu season, especially since this year’s flu vaccine doesn’t match the most common flu strain. At the same time, it is still being stressed that the vaccine does provide some protection.
But seeing when the flu is expected to hit a certain area could lead to taking flu prevention steps like letting people work from home or closing schools to reduce flu contact. Hospitals could also use the flu forecasts to help plan staffing and medicinal needs.
The Columbia team envisions a day when their flu-forecasting model may be as common as the weather broadcasts upon which it is based.
[Image via Columbia Prediction of Infectious Diseases – Influenza]