UMass part of new flu forecasting team

Monday, January 01, 2018

AMHERST — Research teams, including one led by biostatistician Nicholas Reich at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, are participating in a national influenza forecasting challenge to try to predict the onset, progress and peaks of regional flu outbreaks to aid prevention and control. This year, the Reich Lab is leading an effort to improve the forecasting by increasing collaboration between groups.

“Every year, the Centers for Disease Control host a flu forecasting challenge. It’s the most organized and public effort at forecasting any infectious disease anywhere in the world. Our lab is now in our third year of participating, and we find that each year, we get a little better and learn a bit more,” Reich said.

“This year, we wanted to take it to the next level, so we worked with other teams year-round to develop a way that our models could work together to make a single best forecast for influenza,” Reich said. “This entire effort is public, so anyone can go to the website and see the forecasts.”

While according to the most recent data, this flu season has started earlier than usual in the northeastern and southern U.S., the forecasts are still showing a fair amount of uncertainty about how big a season it will be.

Reich and colleagues at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences collaborate with teams at Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University and a group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, in a group they have dubbed the “FluSight Network.” It issues a new flu season forecast every Monday for public health researchers and practitioners that compares the flu trajectory this year to past years.

In a recent publication, Reich and colleagues state that their aim is to “combine forecasting models for seasonal influenza in the U.S. to create a single ensemble forecast.”

Effects on disease control policy

In a heavy flu season, between 5-12 percent of doctor’s visits are for influenza-like-illness, and that number varies regionally in the U.S. This metric is one of the key indicators for the Centers for Disease Control of how bad the flu season is.

“Certainly for the CDC, there are policy decisions that could be impacted by these forecasts, including the timing of public communication about flu season starting and when to get vaccinated. Models can help with all of that. Also, hospitals often try to have enhanced precautions in place during a certain peak period for the disease. If you do that too early, or for too long, you run the risk of individuals getting tired of taking the extra time to comply with the policies,” Reich said.