Epidemic cycles driven by host behaviour

J R Soc Interface. 2014 Oct 6;11(99):20140575. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0575.


Host immunity and demographics (the recruitment of susceptibles via birthrate) have been demonstrated to be a key determinant of the periodicity of measles, pertussis and dengue epidemics. However, not all epidemic cycles are from pathogens inducing sterilizing immunity or are driven by demographics. Many sexually transmitted infections are driven by sexual behaviour. We present a mathematical model of disease transmission where individuals can disconnect and reconnect depending on the infectious status of their contacts. We fit the model to historic syphilis (Treponema pallidum) and gonorrhea (Neisseria gonorrhoeae) incidence in the USA and explore potential intervention strategies against syphilis. We find that cycles in syphilis incidence can be driven solely by changing sexual behaviour in structured populations. Our model also explains the lack of similar cycles in gonorrhea incidence even if the two infections share the same propagation pathways. Our model similarly illustrates how sudden epidemic outbreaks can occur on time scales smaller than the characteristic demographic time scale of the population and that weaker infections can lead to more violent outbreaks. Behaviour also appears to be critical for control strategies as we found a bigger sensitivity to behavioural interventions than antibiotic treatment. Thus, behavioural interventions may play a larger role than previously thought, especially in the face of antibiotic resistance and low intervention efficacies.

Keywords: epidemic cycles; human behaviour; network model; syphilis.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Gonorrhea / epidemiology*
  • Gonorrhea / transmission*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Sexual Behavior / statistics & numerical data*
  • Syphilis / epidemiology*
  • Syphilis / transmission*
  • United States / epidemiology