August 1, 2008 Using math and computer science, engineers created a model to forecast the progression of a future pandemic. They looked at the way diseases spread to new people and over distances in order to prepare for future emergencies. The model allows researchers to design the best way to distribute food and vaccines to those in need, as well as the optimum locations and staffing for clinics that would respond.
In 1918 and 1919, more than a half-a-million Americans died in a huge flu pandemic. We've had other flu outbreaks since, and now, illnesses like bird flu and SARS have raised concerns that another pandemic may be coming.
Though we can't know for sure when it will hit, or how severe it will be, a new kind of planning tool may help us prepare for the worst.
College professor John Bugge spends a lot of time riding his bike. Preparing for a pandemic? Not so much. "I guess I would have to say I'm a unprepared as anybody else," explains John Bugge, professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Ga.
It happened in 1918, a huge flu outbreak that spread worldwide. Could it happen again in our time? At Georgia Tech's Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, researchers say the threat of a modern pandemic is very real. "I would like to say we don't have to plan for it, but the truth is, we expect that it's coming, it's just a matter of when it comes," says Julie Swann, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech.
Now, operations researchers have developed a mathematical model that uses Georgia census data, to track a pandemic before it actually hits. This model can predict when and where the pandemic would spread.
"What's different about the research that we're doing is it really looks at the aspects that relate to the spread of the disease over time and over geography," Dr. Swann says.
The model can also be used for distributing food and vaccine, so providers can plan ahead. "For example if you're interested in opening food distribution facilities, depending on the number of infected people it will tell you where you should open facilities where you should close them, and how you should allocate your resources," says Pinar Keskinocak, Ph.D., Operations researcher at H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech.
Understanding a pandemic before it hits: It could help ensure we all get the help and medicine we need to survive.
WHAT IS THE FLU: The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which targets the respiratory tract by binding to the surface of cells. Then the virus releases its genetic information (RNA) into the cell's nucleus to replicate itself. When the cell dies, those copies are released into the body, infecting other cells. Flu symptoms are unpleasant, but usually not life-threatening by themselves. However, the flu weakens the immune system, making the body vulnerable to more serious infections, such as pneumonia.
PANDEMIC PANIC: Being able to determine the specific influenza strain in a sample may help world health officials combat future flu epidemics and pandemics. Strain identification is critical for tracking emerging strains and determining which flu strains are most likely to infect the population the following year in order to develop annual preventive vaccines. Historically, flu pandemics occur when a new strain of the flu virus emerges that is particularly contagious. They can cause millions of deaths worldwide, ranking a flu pandemic among the top four global risks listed by the World Economic Forum.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.