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Flu Forecasts Could Become As Easy As Predicting the Weather

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Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - A new study into flu outbreaks could one day make predicting when flu season will hit as easy as forecasting the weather, saving lives in the process.

The latest study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences takes a closer look at the weather patterns circulating during recent influenza outbreaks, and there seems to be a connection.

Researchers at Columbia University have adapted weather forecasting techniques to come up with local forecasts of seasonal outbreaks and they’ve found that flu epidemics – which can strike anytime from October to April – tend to occur after very dry weather.

The hope is that predicting when an outbreak will hit – which researchers believe they’ll be able to nail down to within 7 weeks of a flu season’s peak – will help the U.S. better prepare it, limited flu-related deaths. Influenza kills about 35,000 Americans every year.

This particular study used web-based estimates of flu-related sickness in New York City spanning from 2003 to 2008, to retroactively generate flu forecasts, finding that the outbreak’s peak could successfully be predicted in advance.

“When we hear that there is an 80 percent chance of rain, we all have an intuitive sense of whether or not we should carry an umbrella,” researcher Jeffrey Shaman said. “I expect we will develop a similar comfort level and confidence in flu forecasts and develop an intuition of what we should do to protect ourselves in response to different forecast outcomes.”

In a nutshell, by predicting the timing and severity of a flu outbreak, the system can eventually help health officials alert the public of when to get a flu shot.

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