Background: Fast changes in human demographics worldwide, coupled with increased mobility, and modified land uses make the threat of emerging infectious diseases increasingly important. Currently there is worldwide alert for H5N1 avian influenza becoming as transmissible in humans as seasonal influenza, and potentially causing a pandemic of unprecedented proportions. Here we show how epidemiological surveillance data for emerging infectious diseases can be interpreted in real time to assess changes in transmissibility with quantified uncertainty, and to perform running time predictions of new cases and guide logistics allocations.
Methodology/principal findings: We develop an extension of standard epidemiological models, appropriate for emerging infectious diseases, that describes the probabilistic progression of case numbers due to the concurrent effects of (incipient) human transmission and multiple introductions from a reservoir. The model is cast in terms of surveillance observables and immediately suggests a simple graphical estimation procedure for the effective reproductive number R (mean number of cases generated by an infectious individual) of standard epidemics. For emerging infectious diseases, which typically show large relative case number fluctuations over time, we develop a bayesian scheme for real time estimation of the probability distribution of the effective reproduction number and show how to use such inferences to formulate significance tests on future epidemiological observations.
Conclusions/significance: Violations of these significance tests define statistical anomalies that may signal changes in the epidemiology of emerging diseases and should trigger further field investigation. We apply the methodology to case data from World Health Organization reports to place bounds on the current transmissibility of H5N1 influenza in humans and establish a statistical basis for monitoring its evolution in real time.