The importance of understanding age when estimating the impact of influenza on hospitalizations and deaths has been well described, yet existing surveillance systems have not made adequate use of age-specific data. Monitoring influenza-related morbidity using electronic health data may provide timely and detailed insight into the age-specific course, impact and epidemiology of seasonal drift and reassortment epidemic viruses. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the use of emergency department (ED) chief complaint data for measuring influenza-attributable morbidity by age and by predominant circulating virus.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed electronically reported ED fever and respiratory chief complaint and viral surveillance data in New York City (NYC) during the 2001–2002 through 2005–2006 influenza seasons, and inferred dominant circulating viruses from national surveillance reports. We estimated influenza-attributable impact as observed visits in excess of a model-predicted baseline during influenza periods, and epidemic timing by threshold and cross correlation. We found excess fever and respiratory ED visits occurred predominantly among school-aged children (8.5 excess ED visits per 1,000 children aged 5–17 y) with little or no impact on adults during the early-2002 B/Victoria-lineage epidemic; increased fever and respiratory ED visits among children younger than 5 y during respiratory syncytial virus-predominant periods preceding epidemic influenza; and excess ED visits across all ages during the 2003–2004 (9.2 excess visits per 1,000 population) and 2004–2005 (5.2 excess visits per 1,000 population) A/H3N2 Fujian-lineage epidemics, with the relative impact shifted within and between seasons from younger to older ages. During each influenza epidemic period in the study, ED visits were increased among school-aged children, and each epidemic peaked among school-aged children before other impacted age groups.
Influenza-related morbidity in NYC was highly age- and strain-specific. The impact of reemerging B/Victoria-lineage influenza was focused primarily on school-aged children born since the virus was last widespread in the US, while epidemic A/Fujian-lineage influenza affected all age groups, consistent with a novel antigenic variant. The correspondence between predominant circulating viruses and excess ED visits, hospitalizations, and deaths shows that excess fever and respiratory ED visits provide a reliable surrogate measure of incident influenza-attributable morbidity. The highly age-specific impact of influenza by subtype and strain suggests that greater age detail be incorporated into ongoing surveillance. Influenza morbidity surveillance using electronic data currently available in many jurisdictions can provide timely and representative information about the age-specific epidemiology of circulating influenza viruses.
Don Olson and colleagues report that influenza-related morbidity in NYC from 2001 to 2006 was highly age- and strain-specific and conclude that surveillance using electronic data can provide timely and representative information about the epidemiology of circulating influenza viruses.
Seasonal outbreaks (epidemics) of influenza (a viral infection of the nose, throat, and airways) send millions of people to their beds every winter. Most recover quickly, but flu epidemics often disrupt daily life and can cause many deaths. Seasonal epidemics occur because influenza viruses continually make small changes to the viral proteins (antigens) that the human immune system recognizes. Consequently, an immune response that combats influenza one year may provide partial or no protection the following year. Occasionally, an influenza virus with large antigenic changes emerges that triggers an influenza pandemic, or global epidemic. To help prepare for both seasonal epidemics and pandemics, public-health officials monitor influenza-related illness and death, investigate unusual outbreaks of respiratory diseases, and characterize circulating strains of the influenza virus. While traditional influenza-related illness surveillance systems rely on relatively slow voluntary clinician reporting of cases with influenza-like illness symptoms, some jurisdictions have also started to use “syndromic” surveillance systems. These use electronic health-related data rather than clinical impression to track illness in the community. For example, increased visits to emergency departments for fever or respiratory (breathing) problems can provide an early warning of an influenza outbreak.
Why Was This Study Done?
Rapid illness surveillance systems have been shown to detect flu outbreaks earlier than is possible through monitoring deaths from pneumonia or influenza. Increases in visits to emergency departments by children for fever or respiratory problems can provide an even earlier indicator. Researchers have not previously examined in detail how fever and respiratory problems by age group correlate with the predominant circulating respiratory viruses. Knowing details like this would help public-health officials detect and respond to influenza epidemics and pandemics. In this study, the researchers have used data collected between 2001 and 2006 in New York City emergency departments to investigate these aspects of syndromic surveillance for influenza.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed emergency department visits categorized broadly into a fever and respiratory syndrome (which provides an estimate of the total visits attributable to influenza) or more narrowly into an influenza-like illness syndrome (which specifically indicates fever with cough and/or sore throat) with laboratory-confirmed influenza surveillance data. They found that emergency department visits were highest during peak influenza periods, and that the affect on different age groups varied depending on the predominant circulating viruses. In early 2002, an epidemic reemergence of B/Victoria-lineage influenza viruses caused increased visits among school-aged children, while adult visits did not increase. By contrast, during the 2003–2004 season, when the predominant virus was an A/H3N2 Fujian-lineage influenza virus, excess visits occurred in all age groups, though the relative increase was greatest and earliest among school-aged children. During periods of documented respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) circulation, increases in fever and respiratory emergency department visits occurred in children under five years of age regardless of influenza circulation. Finally, the researchers found that excess visits to emergency departments for fever and respiratory symptoms preceded deaths from pneumonia or influenza by about two weeks.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that excess emergency department visits for fever and respiratory symptoms can provide a reliable and timely surrogate measure of illness due to influenza. They also provide new insights into how different influenza viruses affect people of different ages and how the timing and progression of each influenza season differs. These results, based on data collected over only five years in one city, might not be generalizable to other settings or years, warn the researchers. However, the present results strongly suggest that the routine monitoring of influenza might be improved by using electronic health-related data, such as emergency department visit data, and by examining it specifically by age group. Furthermore, by showing that school-aged children can be the first people to be affected by seasonal influenza, these results highlight the important role this age group plays in community-wide transmission of influenza, an observation that could influence the implementation of public-health strategies such as vaccination that aim to protect communities during influenza epidemics and pandemics.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040247.
• US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on influenza for patients and health professionals and on influenza surveillance in the US (in English, Spanish, and several other languages)
• World Health Organization has a fact sheet on influenza and on global surveillance for influenza (in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese)
• The MedlinePlus encyclopedia contains a page on flu (in English and Spanish)
• US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has a feature called “focus on flu”
• A detailed report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention titled “Framework for Evaluating Public Health Surveillance Systems for Early Detection of Outbreaks” includes a simple description of syndromic surveillance
• The International Society for Disease Surveillance has a collaborative syndromic surveillance public wiki
• The Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory includes working papers and discussions by cultural anthropologists studying modern vital systems security and syndromic surveillance