Emory University scientists are part of a national team developing computer models to combat the H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus. By simulating the outbreak of this potentially deadly strain of flu in a hypothetical human community, the scientists hope to be better prepared to contain a real outbreak of the virus. Preliminary work from the models could be available by January 2005.
The flu project is part of the national Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), which is developing computational models of the interactions between infectious agents and their hosts, disease spread, prediction systems and response strategies. The Emory research team is led by Rollins School of Public Health biostatisticians Ira Longini, Jr., PhD (principal investigator) and M. Elizabeth Halloran, MD, Dsc, and their colleagues Azhar Nizam, MS, senior associate of biostatistics and Rustom Antia, PhD, associate professor of biology in Emory College.
The Emory group received a five-year, $3 million MIDAS project grant last spring, one of four grants funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Other participating MIDAS institutions include Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Research Triangle Institute International in North Carolina.
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 natural history of the virus. These simulation models will allow researchers to evaluate 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.
"Our experience in modeling infectious disease outbreaks will help us determine the best strategies for containing influenza within different scenarios," Dr. Longini said. "The best defense against emerging infections is preparedness, and the tools of biostatistics are very valuable in anticipating the impact of disease."
The Emory biostatistics team already has developed new research tools to measure vaccine effectiveness (American Journal of Epidemiology, August 15, 2003) and a dynamic stochastic model that demonstrated targeted antiviral prophylaxis of flu case contacts could dampen a hypothetical pandemic influenza outbreak. (American Journal of Epidemiology, April 1, 2004).
"All the researchers involved in this project bring a tremendous amount of expertise to the table, with the group from Emory University contributing their knowledge of the flu, and their computer tools designed to model a flu pandemic," says Jeremy M. Berg, PhD, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "By combining this expertise, the MIDAS network aims to provide tools that policymakers, public health workers and researchers can use to test intervention strategies should such an outbreak emerge."
More information about MIDAS and other NIGMS-supported efforts to model infectious disease is available at http://nigms.nih.gov/research/midas.html.