Mathematical detective work: Using community ecology and agent/systems dynamics models to help crack the case of bird flu outbreaks.

It was a dark freezing day in Minnesota in March when a catastrophic event happened. A pathogen infiltrated one farm and set off a chain reaction that led to the deaths of millions of turkeys and chickens, and cost the poultry industry in the Mid-West US hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, the scale of the disposal effort for the bodies was also a huge logistical and environmental problem. The culprit? Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) sub-type H5N2. How it broke into the farm, how it spread from farm to farm and what conditions are likely to trigger another outbreak are still unknown. The problem being that the perpetrator is a particularly difficult one to catch outside the farm. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack but the needle only exists for a brief period of time. Also we know lots about the behaviour of other sub-types of bird flu – but this one breaks all the rules….. so how then can we possibly get a handle on this situation? The answer is a mixture of community ecology tools and modelling.

Currently I’m in a team leading the modelling effort to do the detective work to understand which potential pathways (from wildlife and farm practices there could be thousands) are could explain the pattern of the outbreak and focus on these in detail to work of ways to shut these pathways down and reduce the risk of another outbreak. We may not be able to catch this particular ‘criminal’ but we can find ways to limit the likelihood of them striking again.

I’ll let you know how we go…

  • Of course these opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.
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