How to Beat the Flu

Armed with big data and advanced analytics, Professor Osman Ozaltin stands at the front line of defense against the impending epidemic

Although Ebola has been grabbing the headlines lately, it is the flu that is a major public health concern every year. It is the 9th largest killer in the United States and causes half a million deaths worldwide each year. That is 100 times greater than all the Ebola deaths in history. The first line of defense against this killer: the flu shot. Seasonal influenza outbreaks can happen as early as October. So the CDC recommends getting the flu shot as soon as the vaccine becomes available. This is usually in October. This is especially true for young children, the elderly and pregnant women. Since it takes two weeks for the vaccine to reach full strength in the body, it is best that people get vaccinated before influenza begins spreading in their community. But the ease at which the virus mutates and spreads makes the CDC, FDA and the World Health Organization (WHO) update the flu shot’s composition each year.

Dr. Osman Ozaltin is an Assistant Professor of Personalized Medicine in the ISE department. His innovative research has a direct effect on the two most pivotal decisions of flu shot design. One is its composition. WHO recommends which flu strains to include in the annual vaccine. A poor match between the selected virus strains and the ones that emerge during the season can reduce the vaccine’s effectiveness by half. The other decision is the timing. WHO has to make both the composition and timing decisions at least six months before the flu season starts. Selecting the strains too early with insufficient data increases the odds of there being a mismatch. But, delaying the decision will impact production lead times, resulting in delays or shortages in the flu shot supply. Production timing and availability can be the difference between life and death.

Before, WHO selected which flu strains to include in the annual vaccine by studying health patterns and disease conditions around the world. Dr. Ozaltin quantifies the trade-offs involved using a multi-stage model. This stochastic model determines the optimal flu shot composition and best time to start producing the vaccine to maximize its supply.

Dr. Ozaltin’s research has an impact on the U.S. economy as well. Medical expenses, work absenteeism and reduced productivity cost about $14 billion a year. In several states, healthcare workers and children in licensed day-care centers and preschools are now required to receive the flu vaccine.

Dr. Ozaltin says that researchers are looking for a way to make the human body identify the flu virus based on the part of the virus that doesn’t mutate. Everyone would then receive a flu vaccination once as a child and it would protect them throughout their lives, much like small pox and polio. Thus removing the flu from the list of the America’s deadliest killers.