Review

Modeling infectious disease dynamics in the complex landscape of global health

Science  13 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6227,
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa4339

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Mathematical modeling of infectious diseases

The spread of infectious diseases can be unpredictable. With the emergence of antibiotic resistance and worrying new viruses, and with ambitious plans for global eradication of polio and the elimination of malaria, the stakes have never been higher. Anticipation and measurement of the multiple factors involved in infectious disease can be greatly assisted by mathematical methods. In particular, modeling techniques can help to compensate for imperfect knowledge, gathered from large populations and under difficult prevailing circumstances. Heesterbeek et al. review the development of mathematical models used in epidemiology and how these can be harnessed to develop successful control strategies and inform public health policy.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aaa4339

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

Despite many notable successes in prevention and control, infectious diseases remain an enormous threat to human and animal health. The ecological and evolutionary dynamics of pathogens play out on a wide range of interconnected temporal, organizational, and spatial scales that span hours to months, cells to ecosystems, and local to global spread. Some pathogens are directly transmitted between individuals of a single species, whereas others circulate among multiple hosts, need arthropod vectors, or persist in environmental reservoirs. Many factors, including increasing antimicrobial resistance, human connectivity, population growth, urbanization, environmental and land-use change, as well as changing human behavior, present global challenges for prevention and control. Faced with this complexity, mathematical models offer valuable tools for understanding epidemiological patterns and for developing and evaluating evidence for decision-making in global health.

ADVANCES

During the past 50 years, the study of infectious disease dynamics has matured into a rich interdisciplinary field at the intersection of mathematics, epidemiology, ecology, evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, and public health. The practical challenges range from establishing appropriate data collection to managing increasingly large volumes of information. The theoretical challenges require fundamental study of many-layered, nonlinear systems in which infections evolve and spread and where key events can be governed by unpredictable pathogen biology or human behavior. In this Review, we start with an examination of real-time outbreak response using the West African Ebola epidemic as an example. Here, the challenges range from underreporting of cases and deaths, and missing information on the impact of control measures to understanding human responses. The possibility of future zoonoses tests our ability to detect anomalous outbreaks and to estimate human-to-human transmissibility against a backdrop of ongoing zoonotic spillover while also assessing the risk of more dangerous strains evolving. Increased understanding of the dynamics of infections in food webs and ecosystems where host and nonhost species interact is key. Simultaneous multispecies infections are increasingly recognized as a notable public health burden, yet our understanding of how different species of pathogens interact within hosts is rudimentary. Pathogen genomics has become an essential tool for drawing inferences about evolution and transmission and, here but also in general, heterogeneity is the major challenge. Methods that depart from simplistic assumptions about random mixing are yielding new insights into the dynamics of transmission and control. There is rapid growth in estimation of model parameters from mismatched or incomplete data, and in contrasting model output with real-world observations. New data streams on social connectivity and behavior are being used, and combining data collected from very different sources and scales presents important challenges.

All these mathematical endeavors have the potential to feed into public health policy and, indeed, an increasingly wide range of models is being used to support infectious disease control, elimination, and eradication efforts.

OUTLOOK

Mathematical modeling has the potential to probe the apparently intractable complexity of infectious disease dynamics. Coupled to continuous dialogue between decision-makers and the multidisciplinary infectious disease community, and by drawing on new data streams, mathematical models can lay bare mechanisms of transmission and indicate new approaches to prevention and control that help to shape national and international public health policy.

Modeling for public health.

Policy questions define the model’s purpose. Initial model design is based on current scientific understanding and the available relevant data. Model validation and fit to disease data may require further adaptation; sensitivity and uncertainty analysis can point to requirements for collection of additional specific data. Cycles of model testing and analysis thus lead to policy advice and improved scientific understanding.

Abstract

Despite some notable successes in the control of infectious diseases, transmissible pathogens still pose an enormous threat to human and animal health. The ecological and evolutionary dynamics of infections play out on a wide range of interconnected temporal, organizational, and spatial scales, which span hours to months, cells to ecosystems, and local to global spread. Moreover, some pathogens are directly transmitted between individuals of a single species, whereas others circulate among multiple hosts, need arthropod vectors, or can survive in environmental reservoirs. Many factors, including increasing antimicrobial resistance, increased human connectivity and changeable human behavior, elevate prevention and control from matters of national policy to international challenge. In the face of this complexity, mathematical models offer valuable tools for synthesizing information to understand epidemiological patterns, and for developing quantitative evidence for decision-making in global health.

  • Authors, apart from first and last author, are in alphabetical order.

  • All authors are members of this collaboration.

  • § In addition to the authors listed above, this collaboration includes: Nimalan Arinaminpathy,1 Frank Ball,2 Tiffany Bogich,3 Julia Gog,4 Bryan Grenfell,3 Alun L. Lloyd,5 Angela Mclean,6 Philip O’Neill,2 Carl Pearson,11 Steven Riley,1 Gianpaolo Scalia Tomba,12 Pieter Trapman,13 James Wood7. Affiliations: 1Imperial College, London, UK. 2University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK. 3Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA. 4University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. 5North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA. 6University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. 11University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA. 12University of Rome “La Sapienza,” Rome, Italy. 13University of Stockholm, Stockholm, Sweden.

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