University of Iowa Health Prediction Markets

Avian Influenza

Another global influenza pandemic, similar to the 1918 occurrence, is considered inevitable by many experts. Recent cases of avian influenza (H5N1) in birds and humans have led many to fear that this strain of the “bird flu” may produce the next worldwide influenza pandemic. Recent observations indicate that H5N1’s pandemic potential is increasing. However, the likelihood that a strain of H5N1 will cause the next pandemic and where and when such an infection will begin are still not known.

Despite considerable uncertainty, information does exist that may help predict when and if the next pandemic will be caused by an H5N1 strain. For example, an increase in the number of human clusters might suggest an increase in the likelihood of an H5N1 pandemic. Collection and analysis of such information is difficult because it is geographically dispersed and not always shared among health professionals (e.g., epidemiologists, clinicians, basic scientists). Currently available methods do not efficiently collect and interpret these data. We believe that a web-based prediction market designed to collect disparate information from widely dispersed health care professionals can serve as an avian influenza “barometer”.

An avian influenza prediction market will not replace existing influenza surveillance systems nor will it eliminate the need for improvements to the existing systems. Instead, we propose this prediction market as a supplement that can quickly aggregate expert opinions based on existing surveillance information. Prediction markets have been shown to be especially effective at quantifying subjective data. The probabilities generated by this market could help policymakers and public health officials coordinate resources, facilitate vaccine production, increase stockpiles of antiviral medications, and plan for allocation of personnel and resources.

The consensus within the health-care community is that the world is unprepared for the next influenza pandemic. This lack of preparedness exists at all levels: global, national and local. Several months or even weeks of warning would help with public-health preparedness and could prove crucial to saving lives. The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced a blueprint for pandemic preparedness with recommendations for certain actions to occur at specific levels of alert. Each level of alert is linked to specific, confirmable events (e.g., identification of a new influenza strain with unusual pathogenicity). The goal of this research project is to provide more accurate estimates for the likelihood of certain events -- by date and location -- than are currently available.

There is nothing extraordinary about prediction markets. As an alternative method for gathering and processing information about disease occurrence, pathogenicity, and progression, however, they are novel and hold much promise. A successful avian prediction market will include epidemiologists, clinical microbiologists, clinicians, virologists, and veterinarians. The Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) is the largest assembly of individuals concerned with monitoring and tracking emerging infections diseases. We will recruit exclusively from within ProMED’s membership. Subscritions to ProMED are free; to join, go to www.promedmail.org.