TAMPA - Bernard Gipson came to Florida Hospital with an early case of the flu. "It was bad, really bad. I couldn't breathe, thought I was going to die."
Bernard told me he would have done almost anything to avoid getting this sick, including paying attention to a flu forecast. "You could watch yourself and the people you are around. Keep your hands washed and your mouth and nose covered."
Scientists have just developed a computer model for predicting flu outbreaks weeks in advance. Researchers at Columbia University and the National Center for Research focused their study on winters in New York between 2003 and 2009. Their formula used data from the Google flu trends project, which estimates flu outbreaks based on the number of flu related searches in any given region.
Dr. James Orlowski further explains, "What they amazingly found is that it was just as accurate as the CDC's model using doctors and hospitals and laboratories to report cases of flu. Then this group took it one step further and decided to combine it with weather data and winds aloft data to see if they could predict the spread of flu across our country and across the world. It appears to work."
It could give health departments a five to seven day lead on an outbreak. Doug Holt is the director of Hillsborough County's Health Department. "On a statewide basis, if we can anticipate different parts of the state being impacted at a greater amount we an shift resources like supplies of Tamiflu, and other medications to treat it."
A flu forecast could also signal hospitals to ramp up staff but, Dr. Orlowki warns, "It's really not going to convince anyone to go out and get a flu shot and it probably wouldn't have enough time to take effect if it did, so the practicality of it, I'm not sure."
Dr. Orlowski says flu has arrived in Tampa Bay. It's sporadic, but at least one hospital is reporting cases of Influenza B, which can leave a person sicker, longer.