The ecological effects of individual exposures and nonlinear disease dynamics in populations

Am J Public Health. 1994 May;84(5):836-42. doi: 10.2105/ajph.84.5.836.


To describe causally predictive relationships, model parameters and the data used to estimate them must correspond to the social context of causal actions. Causes may act directly upon the individual, during a contact between individuals, or upon a group dynamic. Assuming that outcomes in different individuals are independent puts the causal action directly upon individuals. Analyses making this assumption are thus inappropriate for infectious diseases, for which risk factors alter the outcome of contacts between individuals. Transmission during contact generates nonlinear infection dynamics. These dynamics can so attenuate exposure-infection relationships at the individual level that even risk factors causing the vast majority of infections can be missed by individual-level analyses. On the other hand, these dynamics amplify causal associations between exposure and infection at the ecological level. The amplification and attenuation derive from chains of transmission initiated by exposed individuals but involving unexposed individuals. A study of household exposure to the only vector of dengue in Mexico illustrates the phenomenon. An individual-level analysis demonstrated almost no association between exposure and infection. Ecological analysis, in contrast, demonstrated a strong association. Transmission models that are devoid of any sources of the ecological fallacy are used to illustrate how nonlinear dynamics generate such results.

MeSH terms

  • Dengue / transmission*
  • Ecology*
  • Epidemiologic Factors
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Humans
  • Infections / transmission
  • Models, Biological
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk Factors