Are epidemics inevitable? Disease prevention and control in changing landscapes

Disease prevention Predicting the arrival of bluetongue courtesy of the Met Office.

University of Cambridge; Institute for Animal Health, Rothamsted Research

Mathematics is key to effective strategies for preventing and controlling infectious diseases such as Bluetongue. Mathematical models can now predict the way animal and plant diseases spread, and where and when future outbreaks may occur, for example, as climate changes.

‘We have developed a simple generic model with a small number of variables,’ explains Chris Gilligan, University of Cambridge. ‘This can then be tailored to specific infections.’

The team at Cambridge and Rothamsted Research is at the forefront of modelling plant diseases, with the Cambridge scientists advising the USA on Sudden Oak Death and on diseases that threaten the citrus industry. Scientists at Rothamsted and the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, and the Cambridge modellers, are also being consulted on possible disease invasions in the UK. ‘We can’t predict exactly what will happen but we can say with some certainty what the chances look like,’ says Chris.

Often ways of containing infections are counterintuitive. ‘For two regions with different levels of infection, intuition suggests targeting resources to that with the higher level,’ says Chris. ‘Modelling shows, however, that you should put your resources into the region with lower levels of infection where the chance of disease spread is greater.’