Study: Researchers claim to have discovered a way to predict flu epidemics

CINCINNATI - Imagine if medical professionals were able to predict the path of annual flu seasons the way meteorologists forecast the weather.

That's what some researchers are suggesting could be the future of fighting the flu.

The authors of a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences say using data from Google's Flu Trends website, which tracks the spread of the disease, helped them devise a way to predict flu outbreaks across New York City.

To test their accuracy, the researchers went back to infections in that area from 2003 to 2008.

Their "retrospective weekly flu forecasts" accurately predicted the peak of the annual outbreaks seven weeks before they happened during those years.

"It may well help us in the future," Dr. George Smulian of the University of Cincinnati's Division of Infectious Diseases said, "being able to predict where flu's happening, where flu's going to happen, and therefore be able to help get resources to the right places at the right time."

Research shows the flu kills approximately 35,000 people in the United States every year.

While this new study may present long-term solutions for fighting the flu, local health care officials have their doubts we will see any changes in the foreseeable future.

"Certainly it's 30 years premature, but it's exciting to be able to use these tools," Smulian said.

The director of Cincinnati's Center for Public Health Preparedness is even more skeptical.

"I guess I'm more of the doubting Thomas as to how quickly that would become reality," Dr. Steven Englander said.
Englander says this study isn't much different than what health care officials already do when predicting flu season.

"Things that might increase the accuracy of that may be beneficial from a communications standpoint," he said.

In the meantime, he advises the best practice to avoid getting the flu is to keep getting an annual flu shot.

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