Flu season is in full swing, and the common cold has made its traditional January appearance.
And in most any doctor's office, the lines are busy.
"Our peak is usually either the end of December or the beginning of January," says Dr. Raul Vaszquez at Urban Family Practice in Buffalo. "That's when we see the most of it"
Disease forecasters look up
(AP) Only a 10 percent chance of showers today, but a 70 percent chance of flu next month?
That's the kind of forecasting health scientists are trying to move toward, as they increasingly include weather data in their attempts to predict disease outbreaks.
In one recent study, two scientists reported they could predict - more than seven weeks in advance - when flu season was going to peak in New York City. Theirs was just the latest in a growing wave of computer models that factor in rainfall, temperature or other weather conditions to forecast disease.
Health officials are excited by this kind of work and the idea that it could be used to fine-tune vaccination campaigns or other disease prevention efforts.
At the same time, experts note that outbreaks are influenced as much, or more, by human behavior and other factors as by the weather. Some argue weather-based outbreak predictions still have a long way to go. And when government health officials warned in early December that flu season seemed to be off to an early start, they said there was no evidence it was driven by the weather.
This disease-forecasting concept is not new: Scientists have been working on mathematical models to predict outbreaks for decades and have long factored in the weather. They have known, for example, that temperature and rainfall affect the breeding of mosquitoes that carry malaria, West Nile virus and other dangerous diseases.
Recent improvements in weather-tracking have helped, including satellite technology and more sophisticated computer data processing.
As a result, "in the last five years or so, there's been quite an improvement and acceleration" in weather-focused disease modeling, said Ira Longini, a University of Florida biostatistician who's worked on outbreak prediction projects.
Some models have been labeled successes.
In the United States, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of New Mexico tried to predict outbreaks of hantavirus in the late 1990s. They used rain and snow data and other information to study patterns of plant growth that attract rodents. People catch the disease from the droppings of infected rodents.
"We predicted what would happen later that year," said Gregory Glass, a Johns Hopkins researcher who worked on the project.
More recently, in east Africa, satellites have been used to predict rainfall by measuring sea-surface temperatures and cloud density. That's been used to generate "risk maps" for Rift Valley fever - a virus that spreads from animals to people and in severe cases can cause blindness or death. Researchers have said the system in some cases has given two to six weeks advance warning.
Last year, other researchers using satellite data in east Africa said they found that a small change in average temperature was a warning sign cholera cases would double within four months.
"We are getting very close to developing a viable forecasting system" against cholera that can help health officials in African countries ramp up emergency vaccinations and other efforts, said a statement by one of the authors, Rita Reyburn of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, South Korea.
Some diseases are hard to forecast, such as West Nile virus. Last year, the U.S. suffered one of its worst years since the virus arrived in 1999. There were more than 2,600 serious illnesses and nearly 240 deaths.
Officials said the mild winter, early spring and very hot summer helped spur mosquito breeding and the spread of the virus. But the danger wasn't spread uniformly. In Texas, the Dallas area was particularly hard-hit, while other places, including some with similar weather patterns and the same type of mosquitoes, were not as affected.
"Why Dallas, and not areas with similar ecological conditions? We don't really know," said Roger Nasci of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is chief of the CDC branch that tracks insect-borne viruses.
Some think flu lends itself to outbreak forecasting - there's already a predictability to the annual winter flu season. But that's been tricky, too.
Seasonal flu reports come from doctors' offices, but those show the disease when it's already spreading. Some researchers have studied tweets on Twitter and searches on Google, but their work has offered a jump of only a week or two on traditional methods.
In the study of New York City flu cases published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors said they could forecast, by up to seven weeks, the peak of flu season.
They designed a model based on weather and flu data from past years, 2003-09. In part, their design was based on earlier studies that found flu virus spreads better when the air is dry and turns colder. They made calculations based on humidity readings and on Google Flu Trends, which tracks how many people are searching each day for information on flu-related topics (often because they're beginning to feel ill).
Using that model, they hope to try real-time predictions as early as next year, said Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University, who led the work.
"It's certainly exciting," said Lyn Finelli, the CDC's flu surveillance chief. She said the CDC supports Shaman's work, but agency officials are eager to see follow-up studies showing the model can predict flu trends in places different from New York, like Miami.
Despite the optimism by some, Dr. Edward Ryan, a Harvard University professor of immunology and infectious diseases, is cautious about weather-based prediction models. "I'm not sure any of them are ready for prime time," he said.
Blame The Weather?
Several area doctors report a slightly stronger batch of the common cold this year in WNY.
The shift might be fueled possibly by last year's dry winter which killed off so many cold bugs that the ones that wintered-over, might be a little tougher, they say.
"Look at the winter last year. The winter was not that bad and that changes the dynamics. And this year we are going back to colder weather. That I think is what's changing this," Vasquez says.
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From The CDC:
Overview of Common Cold
A cold usually includes a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, and coughing. These symptoms can last for up to two weeks.
- Over 200 viruses can cause the common cold
- The rhinovirus is the most common type of virus that causes colds
Runny Nose during a Cold
When germs that cause colds first infect the nose and sinuses, the nose makes clear mucus. This helps wash the germs from the nose and sinuses. After two or three days, the body's immune cells fight back, changing the mucus to a white or yellow color. As the bacteria that live in the nose grow back, they may also be found in the mucus, which changes the mucus to a greenish color. This is normal and does not mean you or your child needs antibiotics.
Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Sore throat
- Watery eyes
- Mild headache
- Mild body aches
See a Healthcare Provider if You or Your Child has:
- Temperature higher than 100.4° F
- Symptoms that last more than 10 days
- Symptoms that are not relieved by over-the-counter medicines
Your healthcare provider can determine if you or your child has a cold and can recommend symptomatic therapy. If your child is younger than three months of age and has a fever, it’s important to always call your healthcare provider right away.
Antibiotics are Needed When…
Antibiotics are needed only if your healthcare provider tells you that you or your child has a bacterial infection. Your healthcare provider may prescribe other medicine or give tips to help with a cold's symptoms, but antibiotics are not needed to treat a cold or runny nose.
Antibiotics Will Not Help if…
Since the common cold is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help it get better. A runny nose or cold almost always gets better on its own, so it is better to wait and take antibiotics only when they are needed. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can be harmful.
Each time you or your child takes an antibiotic, the bacteria that normally live in your body (on the skin, in the intestine, in the mouth and nose, etc.) are more likely to become resistant to antibiotics. Common antibiotics cannot kill infections caused by these resistant germs. Learn more about antibiotic resistance.
How to Feel Better
Rest, over-the-counter medicines and other self-care methods may help you or your child feel better. For more information about symptomatic relief, visit the Symptom Relief section of this website or talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist. Remember, always use over-the-counter products as directed. Many over-the-counter products are not recommended for children younger than certain ages.