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Solving epidemics with math

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By Tris DeRoma

Sharks, bears, spiders and snakes may rule the deadly monster category on TV, but a team of mathematicians at Tulane University, who also partner with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, know who the real threat to humans are.

That would be the lowly mosquito.

According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organization, mosquitoes kill about 725,000 people a year through the deadly diseases they carry. Dengue fever, West Nile virus, chikungunya virus and many different forms of encephalitis are just some of the deadly diseases they carry.

While researchers have already found a way to infect mosquitoes with a bacteria that keeps them from spreading deadly disease, Tulane University professor and mathematician Dr. Mac Hyman, who is also a research partner with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is helping those researchers better wield their new weapon with math.

“We’re mathematicians. We aren’t doing the studies, we’re working with the etymologists and public health workers who are doing trials,” Hyman said.

With his research partner Zhuolin Qu, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University, they’re working on a mathematical model that etymologists and public health workers can use to find the most effective way to use mosquitoes purposely infected with Wolbachia.

While researchers have known for a long time that purposely infecting mosquitoes with Wolbachia shortens mosquitoes’ life spans and makes them sterile, the conditions have to be just right for an effective release.

That’s where Hyman and his research teams’ mathematical models come in. With models that factor in release rates, times and other conditions, the team has created a model that is seeing results in the real world.

Trials in Australia and Brazil, he said, are proving successful.

By plugging in real-world field data about the areas where disease-carrying mosquitoes are found, Hyman and his team are able to give health workers and etymologist who are at the site releasing the bacteria-infected mosquitoes information on when, where and how many mosquitoes to release to effectively stop an epidemic.

Hyman’s study, which was recently published in the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ journal, is getting the science world talking as it casts new light on an old problem, putting a halt to sudden breakouts of deadly disease.

Hyman started his career as a mathematician at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1974. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Hyman, who did his undergrad work at Tulane University, decided to go back and help, and ended up staying and carrying on his work at Tulane University. However, he still comes back to work at LANL three months a year.

“I’ve lived the last 40 years in Los Alamos. You might almost call me a native,” Hyman quipped.

When he first started his career at the lab, using math to stop epidemics was almost unheard of.

“That’s completely changed,” Hyman said. “Now they don’t imagine planning, even the flu vaccine, without having mathematicians and these types of models in the discussion.”

Some day, mathematical models programmed to help with epidemics may even stop epidemics before they even start, though that’s a long way off.

“I think we will be able to predict epidemics, but not so for at least another 20 years,” Hyman said.

Though the randomness with epidemics is always going to be a factor, Hyman believes whatever the future holds; the problems standing in their way to prediction will be solved through math.

“A lot of what we’re doing (now) is finding out what are the equations we need to solve to predict an epidemic,” Hyman said.