The dominant flu strain going around this year is the same H1N1 virus that caused major panic in 2009 and now one group of infectious disease experts say they can predict when flu rates will reach their peak here in New York and across the country. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.
New York City will hit its flu season peak next week, according to the new flu forecast system created by infectious disease experts at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.
"Currently on the local news we have the local weather report, and they'll give pollution levels, and they'll give pollen count levels. There's no reason in the future that they can't start giving influenza forecasts," says Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health Environmental Health Sciences.
Shaman and his team in the Environmental Health Sciences Department are using similar techniques to weather forecasting. They're combining real-time flu surveillance data from the CDC and Google Flu Trends, with different statistical models to come up with predictions along with other observations from 108 cities across the country, like what the current humidity is.
"What else is part of it? We track the number of people who are infected, the number of new infections in a week, the number of people who are susceptible, the number of people who have already been infected, but have recovered," says Shaman.
Shaman has been in talks with the CDC for several years about their forecast system. A trial run last year proved a 60 to 70 percent accuracy rate. Not bad, he says, compared to other prediction methods.
"Most of the other ones were below 10 percent accuracy. It was much more accurate. We still have a ton of work to do to be honest. We have to work to make this more reliable," he says.
Shaman's hope is that eventually their forecasts will be used to help people, and government agencies prepare even sooner for flu outbreaks.
"This could be used for guidance in school closures in the case of a virulent outbreak. The CDC could use it to figure out the allocation or distribution of vaccines and antivirals," says Shaman.
The city's Health Department says data from hospital emergency rooms shows that flu activity is on the rise and they are encouraging people to get vaccinated.
"Even though there might be a peak next week, there are still going to be cases afterwards," says Shaman.
For more information on the new forecasting system, visit cpid.iri.columbia.edu.