Infectious diseases are studied to understand their spreading mechanisms, to evaluate control strategies and to predict the risk and course of future outbreaks. Because people only interact with few other individuals, and the structure of these interactions influence spreading processes, the pairwise relationships between individuals can be usefully represented by a network. Although the underlying transmission processes are different, the network approach can be used to study the spread of pathogens in a contact network or the spread of rumours in a social network. We study simulated simple and complex epidemics on synthetic networks and on two empirical networks, a social/contact network in an Indian village and an online social network. Our goal is to learn simultaneously the spreading process parameters and the first infected node, given a fixed network structure and the observed state of nodes at several time points. Our inference scheme is based on approximate Bayesian computation, a likelihood-free inference technique. Our method is agnostic about the network topology and the spreading process. It generally performs well and, somewhat counter-intuitively, the inference problem appears to be easier on more heterogeneous network topologies, which enhances its future applicability to real-world settings where few networks have homogeneous topologies.
Keywords: Bayesian inference; approximate Bayesian computation; epidemics; network; spreading process.