Anatomy of a seasonal influenza epidemic forecast

Moss R, Zarebski AE, Dawson P, Franklin LJ, Birrell FA, McCaw JM

Communicable Diseases Intelligence 43: 1–14 (2019)[doi]

Bayesian methods have been used to predict the timing of infectious disease epidemics in various settings and for many infectious diseases, including seasonal influenza. But integrating these techniques into public health practice remains an ongoing challenge, and requires close collaboration between modellers, epidemiologists, and public health staff. During the 2016 and 2017 Australian influenza seasons, weekly seasonal influenza forecasts were produced for cities in the three states with the largest populations: Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. Forecast results were presented to Health Department disease surveillance units in these jurisdictions, who provided feedback about the plausibility and public health utility of these predictions. In earlier studies we found that delays in reporting and processing of surveillance data substantially limited forecast performance, and that incorporating climatic effects on transmission improved forecast performance. In this study of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, we sought to refine the forecasting method to account for delays in receiving the data, and used meteorological data from past years to modulate the force of infection. We demonstrate how these refinements improved the forecast’s predictive capacity, and use the 2017 influenza season to highlight challenges in accounting for population and clinician behaviour changes in response to a severe season.