How Can Maths Help Us Understand Epidemics?
While watching the news about the Coronavirus recently you have no doubt come across discussions about “flattening the curve” and how transmission and mortality rates might be predicted.
The maths behind these discussions is based on mathematical modelling and can help us better understand epidemics and predict outcomes more accurately.
Mathematical models can project how infectious diseases advance in order to predict possible outcomes of epidemics and help governments and public health authorities make more informed decisions.
Using the past to predict the future
By analysing data from past epidemics, maths can give us clues about what could happen in current or future outbreaks.
With mathematical models many different alternative outcomes can be simulated so the data collected from the past helps predict the future and take the right measures to get the best possible outcome.
Fighting epidemics with mathematical models
As it takes a while to produce a vaccine when a new type of flu emerges, there are other tactics needed to fight epidemics and these rely on mathematical models that predict how a disease might spread.
By understanding how an epidemic spreads, governments can take actions, for example closing schools, events and workplaces, to limit the outbreak.
As epidemics can last a long time, it would be difficult to shut down the whole country for the duration and so those making these types of decisions need to know which strategies will be most effective. It is also helpful in working out how finite resources needed during an epidemic can be used most efficiently.
Mathematical biology is used to study disease on an individual scale too, by modelling how our immune systems fight viruses in order to figure out which potential interventions might give us a better chance.
The advice to wash our hands regularly is based on data that is used to model the effect this has on slowing down the spread of disease, as is the recommendation to practice social distancing.
In the early stages of an outbreak there will still be a lot of conjecture, and mathematical modelling will help reduce some of the uncertainty and allow experts to forecast more accurately.
Some of the main factors they will be considering are the average number of other people infected by an individual, how long it is until symptoms appear once infected and the proportion of transmission that occurs before the onset of symptoms.
As more and more data is collected about an outbreak, maths will be able to offer better and better predictions about how it will play out.
Maths is going to be invaluable in helping us understand the current and future epidemics and is an important weapon in our fight against these types of viruses.