November 29, 2004 | Gannett News ServiceThe Iowa Electronic Markets, the online futures markets known for accurate election predictions, now are asking health practitioners to predict when the flu virus will strike Iowa. The goal of the Influenza Prediction Market is to help hospitals and clinics prepare for the rush of flu cases based on predictions by more than 40 doctors, nurses and pharmacists across Iowa. These traders buy and sell shares in the flu market based on when they think a flu outbreak will hit. "We like to think of this as a new way to do surveillance for infectious diseases," said Dr. Philip Polgreen, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa. Health-care practitioners fear a shortage of flu shots may mean more cases this year. Traders involved in the university flu market are currently split 50-50 on whether there would be sporadic cases or none at all, and project a 65 percent chance of a regional outbreak between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1. If the flu market is successful--it was 90 percent accurate during a short pilot project last year--it could help hospitals, clinics and nursing homes schedule more staff, stock up on supplies and better time vaccinations for flu peaks. Dr. Greg Siwek, an Iowa microbiologist and a trader in the market, said he makes his predictions based on whether lab specimens show signs of influenza and observations from his wife, who works in a pediatric clinic in Cedar Rapids. "The real front line of defense is those people. They have the earliest indication of influenza activity," Siwek said. In last year's pilot project, flu market traders used fake money, or "flu dollars." This year, market administrators received a $5,000 grant from a pharmaceutical company to pay for $100 for each trader. Market administrators said the electronic market could be used to predict other outbreaks, such as SARS or West Nile, across the country or world. "Illnesses don't stop at the borders," Polgreen said.