Accurate forecasting of seasonal influenza epidemics is of great concern to healthcare providers in temperate climates, since these epidemics vary substantially in their size, timing and duration from year to year, making it a challenge to deliver timely and proportionate responses. Previous studies have shown that Bayesian estimation techniques can accurately predict when an influenza epidemic will peak many weeks in advance, and we have previously tailored these methods for metropolitan Melbourne (Australia) and Google Flu Trends data. Here we extend these methods to clinical observation and laboratory-confirmation data for Melbourne, on the grounds that these data sources provide more accurate characterizations of influenza activity. We show that from each of these data sources we can accurately predict the timing of the epidemic peak 4–6 weeks in advance. We also show that making simultaneous use of multiple surveillance systems to improve forecast skill remains a fundamental challenge. Disparate systems provide complementary characterizations of disease activity, which may or may not be comparable, and it is unclear how a ‘ground truth’ for evaluating forecasts against these multiple characterizations might be defined. These findings are a significant step towards making optimal use of routine surveillance data for outbreak forecasting.
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