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Australia’s disease forecasting system wins National Innovation Awards

Australian Department of Defence recently announced that scientists from Defence and the University of Melbourne have won two innovation awards for disease forecasting at the CIVSEC 2018 Civil Security Congress and Exposition earlier this month.

Minister for Defence Industry, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP congratulated the scientists and said the awards recognised a unique capability.

“This is an exciting development, which aims to predict the outbreak of disease so appropriate health management and prevention measures can be put in place,” Minister Pyne said.

“If we can reliably predict the impact of a seasonal epidemic, we can allocate medical support and resources more effectively to minimise its impact,” he stated.

He added that for the past two flu seasons, the system has been available to health authorities in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria to inform their weekly influenza forecasts. “If we can reliably predict the impact of a seasonal epidemic, we can allocate medical support and resources more effectively to minimise its impact,” he added.

The system comprises detection tool EpiDefend and forecasting tool EpiFX that use health and environmental data to produce a near real-time assessment of the likely presence of disease and how it might continue to spread. Besides providing a forecasting capability for public health authorities, the innovative system can be used by Defence to protect troops against biological threats and pandemics.

EpiDefend is an algorithm that was first developed by Defence scientists to detect bioterrorism. It is now being used by the Victorian Health Department as an influenza forecasting tool. The algorithm is a combination of fusion of data from lab-confirmed influenza cases, anonymised GP reports and other environmental data such as humidity were tested. This strengthens the reliability, accuracy and timeliness of detecting an outbreak from naturally occurring influenza-like illness and maliciously released biological agents. The tool can accurately predict flu outbreaks up to eight weeks in advance, giving the public health system a better chance to minimise the impact of the outbreak.

EpiFX is a software developed by the Universty of Melbourne to forecast influenza outbreak. It was developed based on statistical probability principles is helping forecast our flu season, and could also identify the level of threat of a bioterrorist attack. In Victoria, EpiFX has accurately predicted flu outbreaks up to five weeks in advance. Weekly forecasts of the incidence of flu are shared with the health sector to gain further insight into the influenza season and continue its refinement.

The system was awarded both the CIVSEC 2018 National Innovation Award and CIVSEC 2018 Award for Disaster Relief, Emergency Management and Humanitarian Services.

The Defence scientists recognised were Dr Tony Lau, Dr Peter Dawson, Dr Alex Skvortsov and Dr Ralph Gailis along with Melbourne University co-researchers Professor James McCaw and Dr Rob Moss.

According to Minister Pyne, the revolutionary system could soon be extended to other states, potentially providing Australia’s first national disease surveillance and prediction system, not only benefiting Defence but the wider Australian community.

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