Opinion: Mathematical models: A key tool for outbreak response


The 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is unprecedented in its size and geographic range, and demands swift, effective action from the international community. Understanding the dynamics and spread of Ebola is critical for directing interventions and extinguishing the epidemic; however, observational studies of local conditions have been incomplete and limited by the urgent need to direct resources to patient care. Mathematical and computational models can help address this deficiency through work with sparse observations, inference on missing data, and incorporation of the latest information. These models can clarify how the disease is spreading and provide timely guidance to policymakers. However, the use of models in public health often meets resistance (1), from doubts in peer review about the utility of such analyses to public skepticism that models can contribute when the means to control an epidemic are already known (2). Even when they are discussed in a positive light, models are often portrayed as arcane and largely inaccessible thought experiments (3). However, the role of models is crucial: they can be used to quantify the effect of mitigation efforts, provide guidance on the scale of interventions required to achieve containment, and identify factors that fundamentally influence the course of an outbreak.