There's a handy tool to help you stay flu-free this year: A new system predicts when flu outbreaks are most likely to happen in certain areas, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications. The system is scheduled to become available at www.mailman.columbia.edu in a couple of weeks.
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For the study, researchers from Columbia University designed a "flu forecasting" systemÃ¢â‚¬”similar to weather forecastsÃ¢â‚¬”that uses real-time data from Google Flu Trends and region-specific reports of the flu from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers tested the predictor on 108 U.S. cities, and the system accurately forecasted peak flu outbreaks in 70 percent of the cities. What's more, the system could estimate flu outbreaks accurately up to nine weeks ahead of time.
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However, the system isn't flawless. Google Flu Trends can overestimate flu severity, especially when media outlets run flu-related news stories (like this article)Ã¢â‚¬”but Google is currently working to update their model to tune out news sources and focus on searches for flu symptoms and remedies. "This is a developing system," says study author Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of environmental health sciences at Columbia University. "We're not going to get all of our predictions correct, just like weather forecasts." Still, the forecasts are a helpful tool for promoting flu awareness and prevention.
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