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60-Second Health

Flu Web Searches Predict Disease Outbreaks

Weather prediction models armed with citizens' flu symptom query data enable researchers to predict flu outbreaks. Katherine Harmon reports

I've spent most of the week with the flu. I'd heard flu season was starting early this year, but I wasn't prepared for it to be this early, in part because predictions for flu outbreaks are still not that precise—especially in germy places like here in New York City.

But a new approach, borrowing real-time analysis techniques from the latest weather prediction models, might be able to forecast the next flu season.

Weather modeling draws on current conditions and filters to make predictions. Now that we're all Googling flu-related queries when we get sick, real-time influenza infection rates are available online. Epidemiologists can feed this info into models like the ones used for weather that can sort through the chaos to predict sickness or health.

Researchers tested the flu formula against data from five actual recent flu seasons in New York City. Given online flu search information, they were able to predict the peak of the outbreak in the city nearly two months in advance. The findings are in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Jeffrey Shaman and Alicia Karspeck, Forecasting Seasonal Outbreaks of Influenza]

Now, I would love a prediction of when I'm going to be fully recovered.

—Katherine Harmon

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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