The threat of avian influenza and the 2004–2005 influenza vaccine supply shortage in the United States have sparked a debate about optimal vaccination strategies to reduce the burden of morbidity and mortality caused by the influenza virus.
Methods and Findings
We present a comparative analysis of two classes of suggested vaccination strategies: mortality-based strategies that target high-risk populations and morbidity-based strategies that target high-prevalence populations. Applying the methods of contact network epidemiology to a model of disease transmission in a large urban population, we assume that vaccine supplies are limited and then evaluate the efficacy of these strategies across a wide range of viral transmission rates and for two different age-specific mortality distributions.
We find that the optimal strategy depends critically on the viral transmission level (reproductive rate) of the virus: morbidity-based strategies outperform mortality-based strategies for moderately transmissible strains, while the reverse is true for highly transmissible strains. These results hold for a range of mortality rates reported for prior influenza epidemics and pandemics. Furthermore, we show that vaccination delays and multiple introductions of disease into the community have a more detrimental impact on morbidity-based strategies than mortality-based strategies.
If public health officials have reasonable estimates of the viral transmission rate and the frequency of new introductions into the community prior to an outbreak, then these methods can guide the design of optimal vaccination priorities. When such information is unreliable or not available, as is often the case, this study recommends mortality-based vaccination priorities.
A comparative analysis of two classes of suggested vaccination strategies, mortality-based strategies that target high-risk populations and morbidity-based strategies that target high-prevalence populations.
Influenza—a viral infection of the nose, throat, and airways that is transmitted in airborne droplets released by coughing or sneezing—is a serious public health threat. Most people recover quickly from influenza, but some individuals, especially infants, old people, and individuals with chronic health problems, can develop pneumonia and die. In the US, seasonal outbreaks (epidemics) of flu cause an estimated 36,000 excess deaths annually. And now there are fears that avian influenza might start a human pandemic—a global epidemic that could kill millions. Seasonal outbreaks of influenza occur because flu viruses continually change the viral proteins (antigens) to which the immune system responds. “Antigenic drift”—small changes in these proteins—means that an immune system response that combats flu one year may not provide complete protection the next winter. “Antigenic shift”—large antigen changes—can cause pandemics because communities have no immunity to the changed virus. Annual vaccination with vaccines based on the currently circulating viruses controls seasonal flu epidemics; to control a pandemic, vaccines based on the antigenically altered virus would have to be quickly developed.
Why Was This Study Done?
Most countries target vaccination efforts towards the people most at risk of dying from influenza, and to health-care workers who are likely come into contact with flu patients. But is this the best way to reduce the burden of illness (morbidity) and death (mortality) caused by influenza, particularly at the start of a pandemic, when vaccine would be limited? Old people and infants are much less likely to catch and spread influenza than school children, students, and employed adults, so could vaccination of these sections of the population—instead of those most at risk of death—be the best way to contain influenza outbreaks? In this study, the researchers used an analytical method called “contact network epidemiology” to compare two types of vaccination strategies: the currently favored mortality-based strategy, which targets high-risk individuals, and a morbidity-based strategy, which targets those segments of the community in which most influenza cases occur.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Most models of disease transmission assume that each member of a community is equally likely to infect every other member. But a baby is unlikely to transmit flu to, for example, an unrelated, housebound elderly person. Contact network epidemiology takes the likely relationships between people into account when modeling disease transmission. Using information from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on household size, age distribution, and occupations, and other factors such as school sizes, the researchers built a model population of a quarter of a million interconnected people. They then investigated how different vaccination strategies controlled the spread of influenza in this population. The optimal strategy depended on the level of viral transmissibility—the likelihood that an infectious person transmits influenza to a susceptible individual with whom he or she has contact. For moderately transmissible flu viruses, a morbidity-based vaccination strategy, in which the people most likely to catch the flu are vaccinated, was more effective at containing seasonal and pandemic outbreaks than a mortality-based strategy, in which the people most likely to die if they caught the flu are vaccinated. For highly transmissible strains, this situation was reversed. The level of transmissibility at which this reversal occurred depended on several factors, including whether vaccination was delayed and how many times influenza was introduced into the community.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The researchers tested their models by checking that they could replicate real influenza epidemics and pandemics, but, as with all mathematical models, they included many assumptions about influenza in their calculations, which may affect their results. Also, because the contact network used data from Vancouver, their results might not be applicable to other cities, or to nonurban areas. Nevertheless, their findings have important public health implications. When there are reasonable estimates of the viral transmission rate, and it is known how often influenza is being introduced into a community, contact network models could help public health officials choose between morbidity- and mortality-based vaccination strategies. When the viral transmission rate is unreliable or unavailable (for example, at the start of a pandemic), the best policy would be the currently preferred strategy of mortality-based vaccination. More generally, the use of contact network models should improve estimates of how infectious diseases spread through populations and indicate the best ways to control human epidemics and pandemics.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030387.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information about influenza for patients and professionals, including key facts on vaccination
US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases feature on seasonal, avian, and pandemic influenza
World Health Organization fact sheet on influenza, with links to information on vaccination
UK Health Protection Agency information on seasonal, avian, and pandemic influenza
MedlinePlus entry on influenza