A theoretical single-parameter model for urbanisation to study infectious disease spread and interventions

PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Mar 7;15(3):e1006879. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006879. eCollection 2019 Mar.


The world is continuously urbanising, resulting in clusters of densely populated urban areas and more sparsely populated rural areas. We propose a method for generating spatial fields with controllable levels of clustering of the population. We build a synthetic country, and use this method to generate versions of the country with different clustering levels. Combined with a metapopulation model for infectious disease spread, this allows us to in silico explore how urbanisation affects infectious disease spread. In a baseline scenario with no interventions, the underlying population clustering seems to have little effect on the final size and timing of the epidemic. Under within-country restrictions on non-commuting travel, the final size decreases with increased population clustering. The effect of travel restrictions on reducing the final size is larger with higher clustering. The reduction is larger in the more rural areas. Within-country travel restrictions delay the epidemic, and the delay is largest for lower clustering levels. We implemented three different vaccination strategies-uniform vaccination (in space), preferentially vaccinating urban locations and preferentially vaccinating rural locations. The urban and uniform vaccination strategies were most effective in reducing the final size, while the rural vaccination strategy was clearly inferior. Visual inspection of some European countries shows that many countries already have high population clustering. In the future, they will likely become even more clustered. Hence, according to our model, within-country travel restrictions are likely to be less and less effective in delaying epidemics, while they will be more effective in decreasing final sizes. In addition, to minimise final sizes, it is important not to neglect urban locations when distributing vaccines. To our knowledge, this is the first study to systematically investigate the effect of urbanisation on infectious disease spread and in particular, to examine effectiveness of prevention measures as a function of urbanisation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Communicable Disease Control
  • Communicable Diseases / transmission*
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Travel
  • Urbanization*
  • Vaccination

Grants and funding

SE and AF acknowledge partial funding from the Norwegian Research Council centre BigInsight project 237718. The funders had no role in study resign, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.