Joining the dots – Measuring the Zika virus risk

Lauren Gardner

Joining the dots – Measuring the Zika virus risk Using her engineering background to join some important cross-disciplinary dots, Dr Lauren Gardner joins with long-standing collaborator Sahotra Sarkar, a conservation biologist at the University of Texas in Austin, to address one of the most concerning public health issues of recent times: the spread of the Zika virus.

Zika, although usually asymptomatic in the people infected with it, is linked to the birth defect microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with under-developed brains. In February 2016, the spread of the virus, which has already infected millions of people in at least 45 countries, was declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organization.

Dr Gardner’s role in the international research effort occupies a fascinating, and rather unique, position: she applies her engineering know-how on transport network modelling to epidemiology, or the spread of the disease.

“I come at the problem using a mathematical, data-driven approach, merging the data from transport systems with ecological models – which is where Professor Sarkar’s research comes in, and outbreak data, to quantify the risk posed by Zika to different places in the world.”

...We are working to create robust models that will be available at the onset of an outbreak, so policy makers can act quickly and effectively.

Dr Lauren Gardner

In research published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases in March 2016, Dr Gardner, Professor Sarkar and PhD student Nan Chen mapped how likely Zika is to spread in 100 cities worldwide under two scenarios, taking into account air travel, the set of affected regions, and the prevalence of the Aedes mosquito (a known vector, or carrier, of the virus) and the Aedes albopictus mosquito (a suspected vector of the virus).

“Since our research was published the Aedes albopictus mosquito has been proven capable of spreading Zika, which means the more serious scenario on our map is something we should worry about,” says Dr Gardner. “This means Zika could show up in many parts of the world outside of the equatorial, tropical regions, which includes Australia.”

“We hope to be able to accurately predict how infectious diseases will spread spatially,” she says. “In terms of control, you can’t realistically screen every passenger and plane arriving at every airport, so you have to be clever. You have to pick and choose where you’re going to deploy personnel and resources to try and mitigate the problem. We are working to create robust models that will be available at the onset of an outbreak, so policy makers can act quickly and effectively.”

For Zika and, indeed, any future pandemic, the importance of Dr Gardner and Professor Sarkar’s modelling work cannot be overestimated and will continue to gain in relevance as more real-time travel and virus data becomes available in the public domain.

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