Epidemic influenza causes serious mortality and morbidity in temperate countries each winter. Research suggests that schoolchildren are critical in the spread of influenza virus, while the elderly and the very young are most vulnerable to the disease. Under these conditions, it is unclear how best to focus prevention efforts in order to protect the population. Here we investigate the question of how to protect a population against a disease when one group is particularly effective at spreading disease and another group is more vulnerable to the effects of the disease.
Methods and Findings
We developed a simple mathematical model of an epidemic that includes assortative mixing between groups of hosts. We evaluate the impact of different vaccine allocation strategies across a wide range of parameter values. With this model we demonstrate that the optimal vaccination strategy is extremely sensitive to the assortativity of population mixing, as well as to the reproductive number of the disease in each group. Small differences in parameter values can change the best vaccination strategy from one focused on the most vulnerable individuals to one focused on the most transmissive individuals.
Given the limited amount of information about relevant parameters, we suggest that changes in vaccination strategy, while potentially promising, should be approached with caution. In particular, we find that, while switching vaccine to more active groups may protect vulnerable groups in many cases, switching too much vaccine, or switching vaccine under slightly different conditions, may lead to large increases in disease in the vulnerable group. This outcome is more likely when vaccine limitation is stringent, when mixing is highly structured, or when transmission levels are high.
Jonathan Dushoff and colleagues model the benefits of different vaccination strategies and suggest that small differences in how populations mix can change the best vaccination strategy from one focused on the most vulnerable individuals to one focused on the most transmissive individuals.
Every winter, millions of people take to their beds with influenza—a viral infection of the nose, throat, and airways that is transmitted in airborne droplets released by coughing and sneezing. Most people who catch flu recover within a few days, but some develop serious complications such as pneumonia, and in the US alone, about 36,000 people—mainly infants, elderly, and chronically ill individuals—die every year. To minimize the morbidity (illness) and mortality (death) associated with seasonal (epidemic) influenza, the World Health Organization recommends that these vulnerable people be vaccinated against influenza every autumn. Annual vaccination is necessary because flu viruses continually make small changes to the viral proteins that the immune system recognizes.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although infants and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to influenza, schoolchildren are more likely to spread the flu virus. Also, vaccination is more effective in schoolchildren than in elderly people. So could vaccination of schoolchildren be the best way to reduce influenza morbidity and mortality? Some Japanese and US data suggest that it might be, but policymakers need to know more about the likely effects of changing the current influenza vaccination strategy. They need to know in what circumstances the direct effects of vaccination (protection of vaccinated individuals from disease) outweigh its indirect effects (reduced infection in vulnerable individuals caused by the reduced spread of disease in the whole population) and when the opposite is true. In this study, the researchers have used mathematical modeling to investigate how vaccination affects the spread of diseases such as influenza for which a “core” group in the population spreads the disease and a distinct “vulnerable” group is sensitive to its effects.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers developed a mathematical model in which members of each group mixed mainly with their own group (assortative mixing) and used it to predict how changing the proportion of a limited amount of vaccine given to each group might affect disease spread under different conditions. For example, they report that in a population in which the two groups were very unlikely to mix and viral transmission was low, switching vaccine from the vulnerable group to the core group initially increased infections in the vulnerable group because fewer individuals were directly protected but, as more vaccine was allocated to the core group, fewer vulnerable people became infected because the size of the epidemic decreased. When viral transmission was high, vaccination of the vulnerable group was always best. However, when viral transmission was moderate, shifting vaccine from the vulnerable group first increased, then decreased infections in this group before increasing them again. This last change occurred when vaccination in the vulnerable group was so low that viral transmission was sufficient to maintain the epidemic within this group.
What Do These Findings Mean?
As with all mathematical modeling, the researchers' findings depend on the assumptions included in the model, many of which are based on limited information. The model also considers a population that contains only two groups, an unlikely situation in real life. Nevertheless, these findings indicate that in a population in which one group of people is mainly responsible for the spread of a disease and another is most vulnerable to its effects, the best vaccination strategy is very sensitive to how the groups mix and how well the disease spreads in each group. Small changes in these poorly understood parameters can change the optimal vaccination strategy from one that vaccinates vulnerable individuals to one that mainly vaccinates the people who spread the disease. Importantly, a beneficial change in strategy can become deleterious if taken too far, so policy makers need to approach potentially promising changes in vaccination policy cautiously. Finally, for influenza, the model supports the idea that using some vaccine stocks in schoolchildren might decrease morbidity and mortality among elderly people but suggests that—even if this turns out to be correct—if all the vaccine were given to schoolchildren, more old people might die. Thus, the most prudent policy would be to supplement rather than replace vaccination of the elderly with vaccination of children.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040174.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information about influenza for patients and professionals, including key facts about the flu vaccine (in English and Spanish)
World Health Organization, fact sheet on influenza and information on vaccination (in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian)
UK Health Protection Agency, information on seasonal influenza
MedlinePlus encyclopedia entries on influenza and the influenza vaccine (in English and Spanish)
Public disease mortality and morbidity data at the International Infectious Disease Data Archive (IIDDA)