Statistical methods helping to monitor disease

20 October 2020 | Muriel Cozier

Today, 20th October, is World Statistics Day. Celebrated every five years the observance began in October 2010 acknowledging the importance of reliable, timely statistics and indicators of countries’ progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. The day is organised under the guidance of United Nations Statistical Commission. The theme for World Statistics Day 2020 is ‘Connecting the world with data we can trust.’

Researchers from the University of Georgia, US have collaborated to create a statistical method that may allow public health and infectious disease forecasters to better predict disease re-emergence, especially for preventable childhood infections such as measles and whooping cough.

Reporting their findings in the journal PLOS Computational Biology during  2019, the researchers said that their  five year project ‘resulted in a model that shows how subtle changes in the stream of reported cases of a disease may be predictive of both an approaching epidemic of the final success of a diseases eradication campaign.’

The researchers pointed out that most data analysis methods are designed to characterise diseases spread after the tipping point has already been crossed.  However the research team focused on the critical slowing down, or the loss of stability, that occurs in a system as a tipping point is reached.  This slowing down, the researcher said, can result from pathogen evolution, changes in contact rates of infected individuals and declines in vaccination. All these changes may affect the spread of disease, but they often take place gradually and without much consequence until a tipping point is reached.

As part of the project interactive tools have been created which researchers and policy makers can use in the field and to guide decisions. For example an interactive dashboard has been developed that will help non-scientists plot and analyse data to understand the current trends for a certain infectious disease.

In recent years the re-emergence of measles, mumps, polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases has sparked a refocus on emergency preparedness. Head of research John Drake, Distinguished Research Professor of Ecology and Director for the Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases said ‘Research has been done in ecology and climate science about tipping points in climate change. We realised this is mathematically similar to disease dynamics.’


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