Influenza is a seasonal affair in temperate climates, afflicting populations reliably in the colder months. Exactly when an epidemic will peak, though, has been harder to say. In any given community, it can happen at any time between October and April (in the Northern Hemisphere). That has made planning for the brunt of an outbreak difficult.
Researchers, at last, have come up with a flu-forecasting system that works like the weather report. If used well, the information could mobilize health measures when and where they are needed. Many lives are at stake: Flu kills from 3,000 to 49,000 people in the U.S. every year.
A paper published today in the journal Nature Communications explains the method. Scientists from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health have developed a model that can predict local peaks in the spread of the disease with 63 percent accuracy. That’s enough to be useful, and the model will get better with time.
The next step is for public health authorities to use the information. Ensuring sufficient stocks of vaccines and anti-flu treatments would prevent the kind of shortages that hit some communities last year. In the event of an especially virulent flu, they could consider school closures. Flu alerts could be included in news reports, as pollen and pollution forecasts are, to encourage people to take precautions such as washing their hands and keeping their distance from coughers and sneezers.
Outbreak forecasts could encourage more people to get an annual flu vaccine. More than half the country goes without one. The Columbia researchers predicted outbreaks at least four weeks in advance -- the time it takes for a flu inoculation to take full effect. Care would need to be taken not to send the message that it’s fine to wait until just before peak season to get a flu shot; otherwise, clinics could be overwhelmed.
Maybe other seasonal viruses can be predicted, too. The authors mention rhinovirus, the most common cause of colds, and respiratory syncytial virus, the No. 1 cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in U.S. infants. No vaccines exist against either, but early notice of a coming disease swell could still help by encouraging people to take extra care.
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