Using weekly influenza surveillance data from the US CDC, Edward Goldstein and colleagues develop a statistical method to predict the sizes of epidemics caused by seasonal influenza strains. This method could inform decisions about the most appropriate vaccines or drugs needed early in the influenza season.
The epidemic sizes of influenza A/H3N2, A/H1N1, and B infections vary from year to year in the United States. We use publicly available US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) influenza surveillance data between 1997 and 2009 to study the temporal dynamics of influenza over this period.
Methods and Findings
Regional outpatient surveillance data on influenza-like illness (ILI) and virologic surveillance data were combined to define a weekly proxy for the incidence of each strain in the United States. All strains exhibited a negative association between their cumulative incidence proxy (CIP) for the whole season (from calendar week 40 of each year to calendar week 20 of the next year) and the CIP of the other two strains (the complementary CIP) from the start of the season up to calendar week 2 (or 3, 4, or 5) of the next year. We introduce a method to predict a particular strain's CIP for the whole season by following the incidence of each strain from the start of the season until either the CIP of the chosen strain or its complementary CIP exceed certain thresholds. The method yielded accurate predictions, which generally occurred within a few weeks of the peak of incidence of the chosen strain, sometimes after that peak. For the largest seasons in the data, which were dominated by A/H3N2, prediction of A/H3N2 incidence always occurred at least several weeks in advance of the peak.
Early circulation of one influenza strain is associated with a reduced total incidence of the other strains, consistent with the presence of interference between subtypes. Routine ILI and virologic surveillance data can be combined using this new method to predict the relative size of each influenza strain's epidemic by following the change in incidence of a given strain in the context of the incidence of cocirculating strains.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every winter in temperate countries, millions of people catch influenza, a viral infection of the nose, throat, and airways. Most infected individuals recover quickly but seasonal influenza outbreaks (epidemics) kill about half a million people annually. Epidemics of influenza occur because small but frequent changes in the viral proteins (antigens) to which the immune system responds mean that an immune response produced one year provides only partial protection against influenza the next year. Annual immunization with a vaccine that contains killed influenza viruses of the major circulating strains boosts this natural immunity and greatly reduces a person's chances of catching influenza. Influenza epidemics in temperate latitudes are usually caused by an influenza B virus or one of two influenza A subtypes called A/H3N2 and A/H1N1. The names of the influenza A viruses indicate the types of two major influenza antigens—hemagglutinin (H3 or H1) and neuraminidase (N2 or N1)—present in the viruses.
Why Was This Study Done?
At present, there is no way to predict whether influenza B or an influenza A subtype will be dominant (responsible for the majority of infections) in any given influenza season. There is also no way to predict the size of the epidemic that will be caused by each viral strain. Public health officials would like to be able to make predictions of this sort early in the winter to help them determine which measures to recommend to minimize the illness and death caused by influenza. In this study, the researchers use weekly influenza surveillance data collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the temporal dynamics of seasonal influenza in the United States between 1997 and 2009 and to develop a statistical method to predict the sizes of epidemics caused by influenza A/H1N1, A/H3N2, and B.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The CDC influenza surveillance system collects information on the proportion of patients attending US outpatient facilities who have an influenza-like illness (fever and a cough and/or a sore throat in the absence of any known cause other than influenza) and on the proportion of respiratory viral isolates testing positive for specific influenza strains at US viral surveillance laboratories. The researchers combined these data to define a weekly “proxy” incidence of each influenza strain across the United States (an estimate of the number of new cases per week in the US population) and a cumulative incidence proxy (CIP) for each influenza season. For each strain, there was a negative association between its whole-season CIP and the early-season CIP of the other two strains (the complementary CIP). That is, high infection rates with one strain appeared to interfere with the transmission of other strains. Given this relationship, the researchers then developed a statistical algorithm (a step-by-step problem solving method) that accurately predicted the whole-season CIP for a particular strain by following the incidence of each strain from the start of the season until either its CIP or the complementary CIP had exceeded a specific threshold. So, for example, for influenza B, the algorithm provided an accurate prediction of the whole-season CIP before the peak of influenza B incidence for each season included in the study. Similarly, prediction of whole-season A/H3N2 incidence always occurred several weeks in advance of its weekly incidence peak.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that early circulation of one influenza strain is associated with a reduced total incidence of other strains, possibly because of cross-subtype immunity. Importantly, they also suggest that routine early-season surveillance data can be used to predict the relative size of the epidemics caused by each influenza strain in the United States and in other countries where sufficient surveillance data are available. Because the algorithm makes many assumptions and simplifies the behavior of influenza epidemics, its predictions may not always be accurate. Moreover, it needs to be tested with data collected over more influenza seasons. Nevertheless, the algorithm's ability to predict the relative epidemic size of A/H3N2, the influenza strain with the highest death rates, several weeks before its peak in seasons in which it was the dominant strain suggests that this predictive method could help public-health officials introduce relevant preventative and/or treatment measures early in each influenza season.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001051.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information for patients and health professionals on all aspects of seasonal influenza, including information about the US influenza surveillance system
The UK National Health Service Choices Web site also provides information for patients about seasonal influenza; the UK Health Protection Agency provides information on influenza surveillance in the UK
MedlinePlus has links to further information about influenza l (in English and Spanish)