New software to help fight flu, save millions in taxpayer money

To help save more than $100 million in taxpayer money annually, flu-vaccine efforts should be focused early in the flu season, with a stronger emphasis on children and seniors. That’s among the preliminary findings of research from the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU that were recently presented to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

“Finally, we are able to quantify through modeling just how big a deal flu really is in our community,” said Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Public Health Department.

After the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, public health officials challenged the researchers from the W. P. Carey School to develop a model to better understand the financial relationship between flu vaccine and the cost burden flu places on our community. The researchers delivered some innovative software.

“The county asked us to provide decision-makers and epidemiologists with a system of evaluating different vaccination strategies to best utilize public money,” said  Ajay Vinze, a professor and Fulbright Senior Specialist, who teaches information systems at the W. P. Carey School of Business and was a lead on the project. “We considered how the flu is contracted, how it spreads, the risk of certain segments of the population getting the disease, as well as people’s activities at different times of day, and many other factors. Then, we created two software programs to help public health officials make good decisions, using a realistic environment to evaluate different approaches.”

The two programs are part of the EPIPLANZ system, with its name derived from “epi” for epidemiology, and “planz” for the planning and policy development aspect. The first program is now operational on Maricopa County health officials’ computers. It contains the basic information about how the flu typically moves through the county’s population. It also includes cost estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Based on concrete data, the software allows epidemiologists to consider several courses of action. Vaccinating school-aged children in September and October was among the strategies that proved to be most cost-effective, according to the software. By concentrating time and money in this way, fewer people of all age groups will wind up getting the disease, since children are the greatest spreaders of the flu.

“This model provides us with even more data to support the fact that, in order to lower our community’s health care costs and keep us healthier during flu season, we need to make sure our kids are getting their annual flu vaccine,” England said. “I applaud professors Vinze and Santanam, their team of researchers and our own Public Health Office of Epidemiology for developing a practical tool that will not only help us in our policy efforts, but could also help public health departments across the country as we all work in the prevention of vaccine-preventable diseases like influenza.”

While the first software program takes a more static look at the overall approach to flu season, the second program provides health officials with quick estimates about various vaccination strategies for individual flu seasons or outbreaks. It allows decision-makers to “plug in” details about how the season/outbreak is progressing, the affected population and how the disease is spreading. Then, the program shows the best strategies for dealing with the situation. This software includes data from Maricopa County, as well as surrounding Pinal, Pima and Gila counties.

“These are tough budget times for everyone,” said Raghu Santanam, a business professor, who also headed the project. “In addition to providing a public health service, we are happy to help make disease management more cost-effective, so health officials can focus on saving lives.”

Vinze and Santanam previously worked with county officials on a software program that was used at the height of the H1N1 flu concerns in 2009. County officials were able to use the software to help them quickly determine how to best allocate vaccine doses as they became available in the state.

On the EPIPLANZ project, Vinze and Santanam were assisted by ASU graduate students Harish Jagadeesh and Shrinath Venkatesan. More information about the software can be found at