Pandemic Flu Toolkit will predict future outbreaks in Texas

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Three years ago, swine flu diagnoses swarmed the nation’s hospitals, resulting in thousands of deaths. This flu season, Texas will have more tools to forecast such outbreaks.

Biology and statistics professor Lauren Meyers, worked with a team of UT researchers to create the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit, a web-based development that is able to forecast flu activity within the state. The new technology can be used to predict the amount of people who will need hospitalizations and the amount of medical equipment needed during the outbreak of a disease. Meyers said the kit can also be used to run different scenarios in order to predict the effectiveness of strategies used to battle pandemic flu.

Meyers said she spoke with national organizations about developing similar technology on a larger scale and will be leading a team to develop four additional pandemic tools this fall for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which helped fund the pandemic flu kit.

“Ultimately, these tools may lead to more effective strategies for preventing influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths,” she said.

Bruce Clements, community preparedness director of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the department contributed to the project in order to develop technology that will allow for the enhanced prevention and control of future flu outbreaks. Clements said in addition to the 2,300 Texans hospitalized for swine flu, 585 were admitted to intensive-care units and 240 people died.

Clements said a future pandemic flu is inevitable, making this technology very valuable.

Greg Johnson, a research associate who also worked on the toolkit at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, said the possibilities of this technology are very open and can be easily applied to other health threats.

“I definitely think it could be adapted to other types of diseases, pandemics and threats,” he said. “For now, this is funded by the state of Texas, so it is used primarily by them, but it would be very easy to adapt all of these tools to work on a larger scale.”

Sherry Bell, consumer education and outreach coordinator at University Health Services, said the swine flu pandemic hit UT hard during the fall through summer semesters.

“During the 2009-2010 school year, 1,198 UHS patients received influenza or influenza-like illness diagnoses,” she said. “There were five weeks when over 10 percent of UHS patient visits were due to influenza or influenza-like illness, with the highest weekly percentage being 13.7 percent.”

Bilingual education and Spanish senior Daniela Galvan-Ortiz said she thinks the most important aspect of the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit is its real-world impact.

“It’s good because it could potentially save a lot of lives,” she said.