Published in the journal PNAS, a paper outlining the new technology says that it possesses the capability to predict where the flu will travel up to six weeks ahead of time, giving population groups in its path a heads up so they can prepare.
Preparedness is how infectious disease experts are touting the program, which they claim will help to reduce both infection and mortality rates. But they're also hoping it will act as a type of canary in a coal mine to scare more people into getting flu shots – even though it's been shown that flu shots don't even work.
By boosting interest in flu shots, health officials at both the state and national level hope to stockpile more vaccines and anti-viral drugs in advance of a flu outbreak – which means more profits for drug and vaccine companies.
"For the public, the flu forecast may promote greater vaccination, the exercise of care around people sneezing and coughing, and a better awareness of personal health," reads a report in Science Daily about the true purpose of this forecasting tool.
"For health officials, it could inform decisions on how to stockpile and distribute vaccines and antiviral drugs, and in the case of a virulent outbreak, whether other measures, like closing schools, are necessary."
While the technology isn't technically new, its latest iteration is said to be far more accurate than previous versions. This includes an increase in forecasting with regards to the onset of 35 percent, as well as a 31 percent increase in peak timing, and a 13 percent increase in intensity.
Their hope is to begin using the tool in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) starting later this year. The Mailman School research team has already worked with the CDC, it turns out, having won the 2014 flu forecast challenge put on by the agency.
The biggest beneficiary of the program won't be the public, however. Big Pharma is the real winner here, as flu "forecasts" basically use the cover of "science" to compel more people to get flu shots and take antiviral medications because it's the "scientific" thing to do.
And according to reports, it won't stop with the flu. Researchers want to expand the program in the future to include all sorts of other diseases that scientists will claim to be able to predict the spread of in advance, resulting in increased drug and vaccine sales for those very conditions.
"The system could also be adapted for use with other respiratory viruses, and with some modification, for infectious diseases more broadly," admitted lead author Sen Pei, a postdoctoral scientist studying Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School.
The Columbia-CDC partnership plans to eventually bring in a third ally: The Department of Defense (DOD). DOD weather prediction data, claim experts, can be combined with CDC data on laboratory-verified cases of influenza, which together can be incorporated with Census data put together an "improved" forecast model.
"Influenza, like many infectious diseases, is spread from person-to-person and as people move from place to place," says Jeffrey Shaman, the study's lead author, who teaches Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School.
"By assimilating information on commuting patterns, we've taken a big step forward and improved our ability to accurately forecast where the flu might crop up next."
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