Informational Structure of Infectious Diseases
2013 Seed Grant
Infectious diseases are carried by individuals, but survive in populations. The transmission of infectious disease is influenced possibly as much by information and human behavior as by the biology of the infection and the ecological landscape. In some sense, information and human behavior are part of the larger ecological landscape in which diseases operate but are relatively less understood than other features such as the population age structure, spatial detail or vector ecology (in the case of vector-borne diseases).
Research in economics and epidemiology has demonstrated that individual behavior is not static and changes with the risk of infection and effectiveness and cost of prevention and treatment. For example, the availability of inexpensive, effective treatment for malaria could reduce bednet purchase and use if individuals perceive a lower cost to being infected. These individual perceptions of risk are formed using a number of factors, including public information (such as on disease risk and prevalence), private information (on one’s own circumstances and behavior) and actions undertaken by others. The effect of herd immunity has been incorporated into disease models; but herd behavior and information cascades, which form the basis for how individuals acquire information, are also important. Taken together, the structure of public (both government and rest of society) and private information plays a key role in disease ecology and the dynamics of transmission.
Informational structure, just like spatial structure, could fundamentally change our understanding of disease progression, predictions of disease models, and effectiveness of public health interventions. Information is among the most powerful tools available to government authorities in time of disease outbreaks, and it is unclear how this tool ought to be used either by itself or in conjunction with other policies such as quarantining or mass vaccination. Also information from public authorities may have to preempt rumors and other sources of information that could exacerbate a disease outbreak.
- Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy