Disease risk and human travel research

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Researchers at the University of Maine in the US have received US$1.5 million from the National Science Foundation to examine the relationships among the spread of mosquito-transmitted diseases, perceptions of mosquito-borne disease risk and human travel, including domestic and international travel.

The project, called “Coupled Dynamics of Tourism and Mosquito-Borne Disease Transmission in the Americas”, aims to understand  the role of human mobility in the dispersal of mosquito-borne viruses across a range of spatial scales and explore how infectious disease outbreaks influence the travel decisions of individuals and the marketing strategies of tourism businesses, as well as how changes in human mobility in response to epidemics and marketing might change outbreak paths. It is being led by Allison Gardner, an assistant professor of arthropod vector biology, and Sandra De Urioste-Stone, an assistant professor of nature-based tourism.

“Human activities already have led to the globalisation of many important disease vector mosquitoes,” said Gardner. “The range expansion of these mosquito species, combined with a degree of human connectivity unprecedented in human history, has created a landscape that greatly facilitates the emergence and re-emergence of arthropod-borne viruses.” The project will use the introduction and spread of Zika and chikungunya in the Americas as case studies. “Our goal is to develop capabilities in management and analysis of ‘big data’ to create innovative spatial analysis platforms for modelling mechanistically how human movements drive disease transmission and spread. These models may inform rapid and effective public health responses to mosquito-borne disease outbreaks,” Gardner said.

Using epidemiological modelling and data science techniques, the researchers will investigate the contribution of human movement patterns to mosquito-human interactions and to the spread of mosquito-borne viruses across regions. “It is important to understand how humans select and utilise diverse information to make travel and business decisions that might have an effect on disease transmission,” said De Urioste-Stone. “By using theories and methods from the social sciences, we will examine the role knowledge, attitudes, experience and trust in information sources play in influencing how travellers perceive the risk of contracting a mosquito-borne disease while traveling.”

The researchers hope that meetings with public health and tourism stakeholders will help to develop management strategies and actions to address mosquito-borne disease threats. The ultimate goal of the work is to interact closely with tourism and public health stakeholders to share the results from the study and inform decision making.