Columbia University scientists have claimed to have worked out a highly efficient and accurate method of predicting West Nile Virus (WNV) outbreaks.

In a study published in journal Nature Communications researchers from the University’s Mailman School of Public Health are the first to be able to predict the timing and intensity of WMV outbreaks – something akin to weather forecasting.

According to their team their method uses a computer model capable of generating multiple simulations that mimic the behavior of an outbreak and are knit together to generate an overall prediction. Scientists at the university have been using similar models since 2012 to create weekly forecasts for seasonal flu published online; and following the 2014-2015 outbreak, an analysis of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

In the new study scientists developed the WNV forecasting model, drawing on field collection data documenting mosquito infection rates and reported human cases, and accounting for transmission between mosquitos and birds and spillover to humans. Using the model they created retrospective forecasts for WNV outbreaks in Suffolk County, Long Island, for 2001-2014.

This model system accurately forecast mosquito infection rates prior to the week of mosquito peak infection, and accurately predicted the seasonal total number of human WNV cases up to nine weeks prior to the last reported case.

The researchers also generated forecasts in Cook County Illinois during 2007-2014, reporting similar results to those in Suffolk County. They say the finding suggests that the forecast model will be effective in diverse settings, even those with different transmission dynamics.

As more years of data become available, they hope to further refine their method, potentially incorporating environmental variables, including temperature. They also are working to implement a real-time forecast system.

Scientists are optimistic that their forecast will enable public health officials to amp up their efforts to control mosquito populations and reduce human West Nile Virus cases, and could even help them refine these efforts. Thanks to this model, officials will have weeks of advance notice and this will enable them to better plan for spraying mosquito breeding grounds, alert the public, and determine if parks and camping grounds should be closed.