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On the Trail of H1N1 Flu

On the Trail of H1N1 Flu
H1N1_flu_blue_weblauren-ancel-meyersWithin twenty-four hours of learning that a new H1N1 flu was infecting people in Mexico this past April, Lauren Ancel Meyers was creating an informal survey on Facebook to track how people (her friends, it turns out) were reacting to the pending pandemic. Were they changing their travel plans? Had they pulled their kids from school?

The Facebook survey was mostly a lark, but two days later, Meyers and her colleague Allison Galvani and Yale had posted a more in depth and systematic survey to find answers to these and more questions across the nation. By then, the pandemic was kicking into full gear.

The survey effectively kicked off the two scientists’ work modeling the interplay between changes in human behavior and the transmission of the H1N1 (swine) flu using a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) program. Paul Damien, a mathematician in McCombs School of Business, is also on the team.

“What are the optimal choices that policy-makers can make to best save lives and prevent the spread of the swine flu?” says Meyers, an associate professor of integrative biology. “Our models can help answer those questions.”

Mathematicians aren’t normally credited with saving lives, but in this case, some of the recommendations that come from Meyers’ models could help do just that. Uniquely, the MIDAS program requires the scientists to apply their modeling tools to emerging health crises.

“The MIDAS program is really unusual because we are on call,” says Meyers. “When a public health emergency arises like H1N1 where modeling might be useful, we quickly shift gears and apply whatever tools we know to address that question.”

So Meyers and the team hit the ground running when the H1N1 flu appeared and haven’t yet stopped.

The first results from the survey have come in, and the scientists have already shared them with the flu fighters at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other MIDAS teams.

It turns out that during the first weeks of the H1N1 pandemic, women were more likely to take precautions against the flu—such as following news about H1N1 and limiting social interactions—than men. People from larger households (for example, with larger families) were also more likely to take precautions than people from smaller households. And strangely, as news about the swine flu pandemic began to taper off in the media early this past summer, people didn’t stop worrying, but they did start becoming less and less interested in the idea of seeing a doctor or getting the vaccine.

These results can help policy-makers target certain groups in an effort to change their behaviors in ways that limit disease transmission.

A second survey will be used to model what’s going on in four U.S. cities: Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles (which had low rates of H1N1 infection during the early stages of the pandemic) and New York City and Milwaukee (which had high rates of infection). The researchers want to determine how people are behaving differently in these cities and aim to link that with disease transmission patterns.

In the end, Meyers says, “Collectively, individual decisions can have a huge impact on the fate of a pandemic and the success of intervention efforts.”

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Saturday, 28 January 2023

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