Retrospective Answers in Pandemic Diseases

The spread of diseases has, without a doubt, been an extremely lethal yet frustratingly unpreventable phenomenon throughout the history of mankind. The black plague, small pox, and most recently, Zika and Ebola outbreaks have decimated populations around the globe, eventually dying down after a fatal international spree; for such reason, scientists have continually tried to find new and creative ways of counter-attacking the aforementioned outbreaks. Fortunately, Dirk Brockmann – a theoretical physicist and professor of complex systems at Northwestern University – thinks he’s on the verge of finding a solution, particularly with regards to modelling and estimating the magnitude of outbreaks.

In the article, “We’ve Been Looking at the Spread of Global Pandemics All Wrong”, published by The Atlantic, the author, Emily Badger, discusses the recent progress that Professor Brockmann has had, and the present/future impacts it will have for international prevention efforts. In particular, Brockmann claims that scientists have been “looking at the map of the world all wrong”. To illustrate this, consider the following two scenarios – both models that we saw during our class on “Epidemics”. If a disease spreads solely through local traffic, then it can be depicted as a perennially growing circle of sorts – such scenario would have been the case hundreds of years ago. On the other hand, if the disease could also spread through air travel, then the outbreaks could be depicted by many of the aforementioned growing circles appearing at arbitrary locations and rapidly covering a map or a screen. Thus, analyzing the initial location of the outbreak and the riskier regions of contracting the disease next can be an arduous task for even the best data scientists. Brockmann’s solution is based on simplifying that second model in order to make it much easier to work with and comprehend.

By redefining distance between two places to be “defined by the flow of air travel between them”, Brockmann is able to depict what the world looks like from different arbitrary locations. For instance, consider the following image that depicts the world from Cyprus with the most probable air routes:

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 1.26.25 PM.png

Given the above representation of outbreaks, scientists can now work with a model that resembles the perennially growing circle pattern that was believed to occur hundreds of years ago. As Badger discusses close to the end of the article, the true power of this new model is the ability to pinpoint the origin of new diseases simply from looking at ‘where the ripples began’. Additionally, with respect to the basic reproductive number (R0), utilizing this model can help governments reduce both p (probability of infection) and k (amount of neighbors) – both components that make up the R0 – by employing the use of extraordinary sanitary measures and quarantines in order to bring about an end to fatal diseases.

Funnily enough, Brockmann remarks “Why didn’t we think of all this earlier?” After all, the basic premise of his innovative model is actually to look at pandemics in a similar way as before.

Attached is the link to the article and videos that depict outbreaks in Brockmann’s new model.

We’ve Been Looking at the Spread of Global Pandemics All Wrong

Spread of Pandemic Influenza – Traditional Map

Spread of Pandemic Influenza – Brockmann Model


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