Will early predictions solve the influenza epidemic?

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It’s the flu season. Why is it still here today and haven’t we already found a cure for influenza?

Well not quite, annual occurrences of the flu epidemic are mainly due to the fact that these viruses evolve, allowing them to thrive even when up against an immunity built up by previous infections or new versions of vaccines. 

Influenza viruses cause millions of deaths around the world each year. 

Influenza epidemics are acute, and this means that circulation of viruses is driven by global movements of the human population. 

In this study, researchers are trying to create a model that would allow early prediction of the spread of influenza viruses. Early predictions can help mould public health care policies. 

Creating new vaccines is a laborious process that takes time. Coming up with new vaccines to tackle the virus would require approximately 6 months in advance of the epidemic. 

Why is it so difficult to forecast seasonal influenza epidemics?

Each seasonal flu is different and has its own unique characteristics. Statistical model based on past data depicts the trend of the virus for that particular year. They however are unable to pick up on anomalies. 

The researchers hypothesize that historical influenza outbreak patterns within 2 countries could predict the trends of the next flu season. They studied influenza outbreak data from Australia and Chile. 

In this study, researchers analyzed the trend from data obtained from FluNEt and Google Trends. The prediction model allowed them to estimate peak timing, peak intensity and type-specific activities of the influenza virus for up to 40 weeks into the next year. 

The correlation of trends between 2 countries was impacted by factors such as a population’s economic status, educational background and access to healthcare. 

 

 

The scientists found that positive correlations between the US, Australia and Chile datasets could be used to predict the following year’s influenza outbreak and thus shape vaccine strategies to at least 6 months ahead of the epidemic. 

The results of this study are promising in that by making country to country comparisons, we are able to better forecast flu epidemics and provide a robust and relevant vaccine strategy to counter the epidemic. 

More research has to be done to study the impact of the influenza virus in various regions of the world and especially in developing countries where health care may not be so easily accessed. 

 

 

 

Article Source: Forecasting type-specific seasonal influenza after 26 weeks in the United States using influenza activities in other countries
Choi SB, Kim J, Ahn I (2019) Forecasting type-specific seasonal influenza after 26 weeks in the United States using influenza activities in other countries. PLOS ONE 14(11): e0220423. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220423

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