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Viral Math

photography by sofie kirk

If you lived in Toronto in 2003, you will remember the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis, which practically turned the city into something of an international pariah.

As the virulent virus raged across Toronto, overloading the health system and shuttering businesses along the way, tourists stayed away in droves when the city was put on a do-not-visit list by the World Health Organization. The epidemic affected even those who never succumbed to symptoms of the illness, driving down the local economy and frightening the citizenry.

But while others panicked, a small group of York mathematicians worked busily and quietly behind the scenes to figure out the biological structure of the disease. Using specialized software, they developed a mathematical representation of the complex structure of the virus in a 3D form.

The thought was that by visualizing the disease, scientists and health workers could understand better what it was they were fighting, expediting their assessment of an already urgent situation. It turned out to be a brilliant idea.

York’s small-scale modelling and simulations project eventually evolved into a major interdisciplinary program with more than 20 researchers from universities, hospitals, research labs and government agencies signing on to add their expertise.

Out of devastation, the Centre for Disease Modelling (CDM) was born with a mission to developing and sustaining a national capacity for disease modelling to inform public health decision makers on potential risks to Canadians.

“Although CDM is more than 10 years old, this is just the beginning for us,” says CDM founding director Jianhong Wu. “In the next few years, you’ll be seeing more high-level scientific outputs from us that should have significant impacts on public health policies and programs.”

Mathematical models can now project how infectious diseases progress, and predict the likely outcome of an epidemic, information useful for shaping public health interventions in the future.

Led by Professor Jane Heffernan, a York Research Chair, CDM builds on the success of a research team with broad experience in epidemiology, virology, statistics, public health policy, geographic information systems, mathematics and scientific computation.

Core members come from York’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and include Professors Heffernan (CDM’s current director), Neal Madras, Seyed Moghadas and Huaiping Zhu. All of them have collective expertise in dynamical systems, stochastic analysis and simulations, viral dynamics, agent-based simulations, data analysis and parallel computing.

Their work covers a diverse range of diseases, including HIV-AIDS, avian influenza and vector-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus and dengue fever. CDM also plays a significant role in multiple national projects, including ones focusing on antimicrobial drug resistance in Canadian hospitals, disease prevention and control in aboriginal communities, and the economic impact of vaccine and immunization programs.

As well, CDM works with other Canadian institutions and international organizations to build Canadian capacity for interdisciplinary research on disease modelling using cutting-edge mathematical and statistical techniques.

During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, for instance, CDM helped develop templates of models and simulations to enable rapid response and mitigation measures. That work led to changes in the national pandemic influenza risk management policy to include strategic and adaptive use of antivirals.

While protecting the general population through research efforts is the centre’s main objective, CDM is also committed to educating and training the next generation of mathematical modellers in hopes of impacting public health policies well into the future.

“We have offered summer schools almost biennially since 2002,” says Heffernan. “These schools have trained students in mathematics, computer science and health, including individuals from public health organizations.”

Students work in interdisciplinary teams, “so that they get a taste of what it is like to do research at the frontiers of disease modelling,” adds Neal Madras, chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science.

The hope is that awareness of the role mathematical modelling can play in understanding the transmission of diseases will spread faster than the viruses. The race is on.

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