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Biocomplexity Institute researchers seek to eliminate the heavy costs of flu season

January 14, 2016

Flu symptoms
Flu season begins in October and continues until April. Photo from iStock.

BLACKSBURG — Flu season is now in full swing, and employers are feeling the cost — up to $87 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. Research by investigators at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech is informing new policies that could help lift that heavy toll.

Published in Value in Health, the research uses agent-based modeling to explore variety of scenarios and uncover the most effective scenario for eradicating influenza. The researchers found that vaccinating younger members of large households is most effective in eradicating the disease.

Achla Marathe, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the Biocomplexity Institute, and Jiangzhou Chen, a research scientist with the institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory, previously highlighted paid sick leave as a viable way of halting the spread of flu in the workplace.

But prevention is another important piece to the flu puzzle. Vaccine effectiveness varies in any given year because the virus mutates so quickly that it’s often difficult to predict predominant strains. Centers for Disease Control studies show, however, that the flu vaccine can reduce the overall threat by about 50 to 60 percent when strains are properly predicted.

As such, Marathe and her research team are studying not only the role of paid sick leave but how vaccine allocation strategies may play a role in stopping the flu's spread.

To understand how disease spreads through a network of social contacts, the researchers modeled a flu-like epidemic through a simulated social network based on Montgomery County in Southwest Virginia. Each person in the county was represented in the model by a statistically accurate "agent" to produce a realistic simulation of the entire population at scale.

"The model accounts for symptomatic and asymptomatic health states of the individuals. It also accounts for the latency period between initial infection and the actual infectious state," Marathe said.

The team used a variety of scenarios to understand the interplay between fairness and efficiency. When attempting to assess the best distribution method for a limited supply of vaccines, public health officials often wonder whether to vaccinate based on age, household size, vulnerability, or connectivity within a social network, among many other variables.

Realistic simulation platforms, combined with practical scenarios pertaining to diseases and interventions, can help inform public health officials and decision-makers about the pros and cons of policies before they are implemented, ultimately saving lives and tax dollars. With better strategies in place, the next flu season could prove to be far less costly, researchers said.

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