A group of scientists who are developing computer models to combat infectious diseases have focused their attention on the H5N1 strain of the bird influenza virus.
By simulating the outbreak of this potentially deadly avian flu in a hypothetical human community, the researchers hope to answer key questions about how best to contain the virus. The work is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a component of the National Institutes of Health.
Preliminary results from the models could be available by early January 2005.
“We need to take steps to prepare for the possibility of person-to-person transmission of the H5N1 virus,” said Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., NIGMS director. “This modeling project will provide a tool that policymakers, public health workers and researchers can use to test intervention strategies should such an outbreak emerge.”
The flu project is part of a national effort, called the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), to develop computational models of the interactions between infectious agents and their hosts, disease spread, prediction systems and response strategies. The participating research teams are led by scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.; Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.; Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.; and Research Triangle Institute International in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
To simulate the spread of a possible avian flu outbreak that would become infectious between humans, the researchers are developing models of a hypothetical Southeast Asian community of about 500,000 people living in neighboring small towns. The computer simulations will incorporate data on population density and age structure, distribution of schools, locations of hospitals and clinics, travel and the infectiousness of the virus.
These simulation models will allow researchers to test different intervention strategies that may reduce the rate of transmission between people. The objective is to evaluate methods to locally contain the spread of disease.
“We can see what would happen if we take certain actions, like vaccinating specific groups, using antiviral medications, restricting travel or implementing other public health measures,” said Irene Eckstrand, Ph.D., MIDAS program officer at NIGMS. “Computer models let us envisage the impact of these decisions in a variety of scenarios.”
The ultimate goal of the project, added Eckstrand, is to identify disease prevention and control strategies that not only contain the virus, but also quickly drop the number of people infected to zero—basically eradicating H5N1 from the human community.
“We want to know how we can most effectively prevent the virus from spreading to other areas,” said Eckstrand. “These models will help policymakers design strategies to protect the public from a potentially deadly disease.”
For more information about MIDAS and other NIGMS-supported efforts to model infectious diseases, visit http://www.nigms.nih.gov/research/midas.html.