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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
viral war

There's a new flu-forecasting tool to help predict seasonal outbreaks

The new model for forecasting seasonal outbreaks makes better predictions by factoring in how much the virus changed compared to recent years.

shutterstock_532749466 Shutterstock / STUDIO M Shutterstock / STUDIO M / STUDIO M

THE FLU IS a recurring feature of the Irish winter that all of us could do without.

However, a new forecasting tool being pioneered in the US aims to make predicting outbreaks of the virus easier to do and more accurate and effective.

Scientists at the University of Chicago (UC) have combined data about how the virus spreads with an estimate of what extent the virus has evolved compared with recent years.

The researchers say the new model, published this week in journal Science Translational Medicine, can provide an early warning for when the flu season is officially set to start.

“Combining information about the evolution of the virus with epidemiological data will generate disease forecasts before the season begins, significantly earlier than what is currently possible,” says Dr Mercedes Pascual, professor of ecology and evolution at UC and senior author of the study.

You could imagine using our model to make an early prediction about overall severity of the season, and then use other methods to forecast the timing of the outbreak once it begins.

Each year, four separate strains of the flu circulate around the human population – spreading ‘seasonally’ because of a phenomenon known as antigenic drift.

If one of the strains evolves then a lot of people are set to get sick because they haven’t been previously exposed to that variation of the virus, but that particular change isn’t factored in by most models of the flu virus. The new model does factor in such evolutions.

“Every two or three years, there is a big genetic change in the virus, which can make many more people sick,”  says Dr Xiangjun Du, the leader of the study. “Without factoring evolution into the model, you cannot capture these peaks in the number of cases.”

We’re already well into this year’s flu season (most of us who are going to will have already gotten the flu jab), but what lessons can be learned for next year?

The two researchers say that this particular year’s flu season has seen the virus “changing in a significant way”.

We predict an outbreak that is above average but moderate, not severe, because last year was such a bad season.

You can read the full study here

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