Computer Models Simulate Flu Epidemic, Could Guide Response

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When a type of flu found in poultry and other fowl started infecting people in Southeast Asia, scientists and policymakers around the world began to worry. By the fall of 2005, more than 100 cases of avian, or “bird,” flu had been documented in humans and about half of these had resulted in death. Researchers are concerned that bird flu could provoke a worldwide outbreak. Because most people have no prior immunity to this flu virus strain, a bird flu pandemic could potentially kill millions.

Early progress in preparing for a possible outbreak emerges from scientists involved in the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, a research network designing simulations of disease spread with the goal of identifying effective control strategies.

A multidisciplinary team including Neil M. Ferguson, D.Phil., of Imperial College in London and Ira Longini, Ph.D., of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, used computer models to simulate a human outbreak of avian flu in Southeast Asia and to test what intervention measures could contain it. The models were based on extensive population data from Thailand and information about past flu outbreaks. As the first hypothetical cases showed up in each modeling scenario, the researchers introduced various intervention strategies, such as giving antiviral drugs, vaccinating before an outbreak, quarantining, or a combination of these methods. The models differed in many ways, but each suggested that a carefully chosen combination of public health measures along with the quick implementation and large-scale use of antiviral drugs could stop the spread of an avian flu outbreak at its source.

As the researchers continue to refine and test their models, they are also developing preliminary models for the United States. Although the simulations are still in progress, the MIDAS models offer new knowledge that scientists and policymakers are considering as they prepare for a possible outbreak.