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Computer model tracks pandemics and predicts outcomes

Scientists at Virginia Tech created a computer model that simulates the spread of the disease to help with future tracking efforts.
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Written by Amy Kraft, Weekend Editor on

The 2011 film Contagion showed us how a disease spreads. But the real question on my mind is, how do you contain it?

Scientists at Virginia Tech have an answer. They developed a computer model called EpiSimdemics, a virtual world that tracks the spread of a pandemic before it starts. (It's probably not as fun as The Sims, but based on the same idea.)

To build this virtual world, researchers first created a synthetic population using census data to mimic the real population of a city or country. Census data or surveys were also used to assign each 'person' daily activities and movements such as going to school or driving on the highway. Then, after including models of various diseases, the 'gamer' as it were, infected a few members of the population to see how the disease spreads.

One of the leaders of the project, Christopher Barrett, told Living On Earth, "EpiSimdemics provides a way to generate a real-world social network from detailed modeling of individual activities and you can spread a disease over those individuals that are interacting in that network."

And one of the unique things about EpiSimdemics is that it is adaptive to human behavior. So if a person in the virtual environment decides not to leave the house one day or someone else gets antivirals, the effect gets factored into the program and changes how the disease continues to move.

Although the simulation can't tell exactly what will happen in a pandemic, public officials can use it to see how making a minor change such as a school closure or the introduction of a vaccine, can change things. This, in turn, can help guide their real-life responses.

The program was already used in the 2009 H1N1 virus and "helped government agencies plan a counter-attack," LOE reporter Prachi Patel says.

So although the computer model can't provide a magic bullet for stopping diseases, it is a useful tool for saving lives.

Tracking Pandemics by Computer  [Living On Earth]

Photo via flickr/US Army Africa

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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