NEW ORLEANS -- We have a 10 percent chance of rain tonight, but do you know the chance of catching the flu? Medical researchers are starting to forecast the flu just like meteorologists forecast the weather.
Forecast models are vital tools for meteorologists, like Ken Graham at the National Weather Service.
"A model is basically you take all the current conditions you can, plop it into a giant, powerful computer and run through all sorts of algorithms and programs. And out comes what you THINK the weather's going to do in the future,” said Ken Graham, meteorologist in charge, National Weather Service.
Now, medical researchers are taking a tip from meteorologists and creating forecast models not for rain, but for the spread of flu, which kills about 35,000 people each year in the US.
"It's really quite interesting and exciting, and I think it could be extremely helpful,” said Dr. Fred Lopez with the LSU Health Sciences Center.
Lopez said the flu model runs just like a weather model, and it works. Last year, researchers successfully predicted the peak of flu season in New York City more than seven weeks before it hit.
Flu spreads when it's dry and cold. That's why the model's creators focused on two variables: humidity and something called Google flu trends, which tracks how many people are searching online for flu information, often because they're starting to feel sick.
One day, you might be able to get a weekly flu forecast just like your weekly weather forecast. Doctors say it might be just a couple of years away.
And knowing when flu season peaks could prompt you to get a vaccine or know when to use extra caution in groups of people. It also helps officials plan how many vaccines to store and where to send them.
"The big issue is going to be whether what was produced in one study in one city in the northeast is applicable to a city in the southeast, where humidity variables are different,” Lopez said.
If the flu models do work in other spots like New Orleans, it might not be long before a reliable local flu forecast seems just as normal as your weather forecast.
The flu forecast model does not predict which strains of flu will be prevalent, but it does predict when the season will peak and how intense it'll be.
Similar models are helping doctors forecast outbreaks for other diseases like cholera.