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Math-based tool to track pandemics

Posted on Oct 10, 02:24PM | IANS

British researchers have discovered a low-cost math-based tool to detect the spread and lethality of pandemics such as H1N1 virus at lightning speeds. It will help health authorities in taking timely action.

During the 2009 outbreak, the true extent of H1N1 was not known as in some instances it caused severe symptoms, even death, whereas in others it was so mild that people did not realise they had the virus, the journal BMC Medicine reports.

Researchers have created a number crunching math-model to predict future pandemics such as H1N1 flu strain in real-time, to enable authorities to distribute antibiotics or close schools as a precautionary step.

"In situations like the one we faced in 2009, it's very important to assess early on in the outbreak exactly how the virus is being transmitted so public health authorities can take the appropriate action," says Thomas House of the Mathematics Institute of the University of Warwick, who developed the tool.

"Clearly large-scale blood sampling has an important role to play when faced with an outbreak of a new virus (but it is slow and costly to put in place). But our method provides another extremely fast and cheap-to-deploy weapon in the armoury," adds House, according to a Warwick statement.

The main source of information in Britain on the 2009 outbreak was lab testing of nose and throat swabs taken from people who went to the doctor complaining of symptoms.

But tracking the virus through this method has been shown to underestimate the true number of cases as those who had mild symptoms would not have gone to their doctors and would have been missed in the data.

Subsequent studies of blood samples from the wider population taken at the time of the outbreak, have confirmed the underestimate, which showed that around 90 percent of cases were missed.

The complementary maths-based tool, can give a real-time snapshot of the virus's spread at any stage of the outbreak simply by running a model on a computer. Although these findings specifically relate to the H1N1 outbreak, the model behind them could equally be applied in any future pandemic situation.

It can also be used with any directly transmitted disease, such as flu-like illnesses, gastrointestinal diseases and childhood diseases like chicken pox.