New approach could save lives by forecasting outbreaks

Image illustrating disease spread

A new method of disease analysis combines statistical techniques and a dataset on pathogen distribution to predict outbreaks

With the burden of infectious diseases ever present and an increasingly pressing need to protect the health of communities around the globe, such an approach could prove valuable in preventing disease outbreaks, or at least enabling an outbreak to be tackled in the very early stages.

By combining aspects of community ecology into the study of human infectious disease, insights can be garnered on the distribution of pathogens on a global scale

A key element of the approach is pathogen biogeography, which is the spatial distribution of pathogens across the globe. Professor of Biological Science Tad Dallas at Louisiana State University in the US is one of the researchers behind the new method. "Our approach leverages data on the entire network of pathogens and countries in order to forecast potential pathogen outbreak, emergence and re-emergence events," he said. "Emergence events, which are first records of a pathogen recorded in a given country, are incredibly difficult to predict, as they are sort of by definition unexpected."

Professor Dallas is collaborating on the work with Colin Carlson from Georgetown University and Timothée Poisot from the University of Montreal.

The idea behind the approach is that by combining aspects of community ecology into the study of human infectious disease, insights can be garnered on the distribution of pathogens on a global scale. The hope is that the research will enable adequate preparation in advance of disease outbreaks, as Professor Dallas highlights: "Infectious disease outbreaks, whether they be widespread like Influenza or fairly geographically restricted like Ebola, may be difficult to prevent. However, if we can forecast outbreak potential in time, public health officials and governments can preemptively prepare for a potential outbreak event."

If this can be realised it will save lives, enabling travellers to avoid an area where an outbreak is due to occur, or at least enable them to equip themselves against it.