Herd immunity

I have a long term interest in examples where mathematics has contributed to medicine. Last week I heard a talk at a meeting of the Mainzer Medizinische Gesellschaft about vaccination. The speaker was Markus Knuf, director of the pediatric section of the Helios Clinic in Wiesbaden. In the course of his talk he mentioned the concept of ‘herd immunity’ several times. I was familiar with this concept and I have even mentioned it briefly in some of my lectures and seminars. It never occurred to me that in fact this is an excellent example of a case where medical understanding has benefited from mathematical considerations. Suppose we have a population of individuals who are susceptible to a particular disease. Suppose further that there is an endemic state, i.e. that the disease persists in the population at a constant non-zero level. It is immediately plausible that if we vaccinate a certain proportion \alpha of the population against the disease then the proportion of the population suffering from the disease will be lower than it would have been without vaccination. What is less obvious is that if \alpha exceeds a certain threshold \alpha_* then the constant level will be zero. This is the phenomenon of herd immunity. The value of \alpha_* depends on how infectious the disease is. A well-known example with a relatively high value is measles, where \alpha is about 0.95. In other words, if you want to get rid of measles from a population then it is necessary to vaccinate at least 95% of the population. It occurs to me that this idea is very schematic since measles does not occur as a constant rate. Instead it occurs in large waves. This idea is nevertheless one which is useful when making public health decisions. Perhaps a better way of looking at it is to think of the endemic state as a steady state of a dynamical model. The important thing is that this state is asymptotically stable in the dynamic set-up so that it recovers from any perturbation (infected individuals coming in from somewhere else). It just so happens that in the usual mathematical models for this type of phenomenon whenever a positive steady state (i.e. one where all populations are positive) exists it is asymptotically stable. Thus the distinction between the steady state and dynamical pictures is not so important. After I started writing this post I came across another post on the same subject by Mark Chu-Carroll. I am not sad that he beat me to it. The two posts give different approaches to the same subject and I think it is good if this topic gets as much publicity as possible.

Coming back to the talk I mentioned, a valuable aspect of it was that the speaker could report on things from his everyday experience in the clinic. This makes things much more immediate than if someone is talking about the subject on an abstract level. Let me give an example. He showed a video of a small boy with an extremely persistent cough. (He had permission from the child’s parents to use this video for the talk.) The birth was a bit premature but the boy left the hospital two weeks later in good health. A few weeks after that he returned with the cough. It turned out that he had whooping cough which he had caught from an adult (non-vaccinated) relative. The man had had a bad cough but the cause was not realised and it was attributed to side effects of a drug he was taking for a heart problem. The doctors did everything to save the boy’s life but the infection soon proved fatal. It is important to realize that this is not an absolutely exceptional case but a scenario which happens regularly. It brings home what getting vaccinated (or failing to do so) really means. Of course an example like this has no statistical significance but it can nevertheless help to make people think.

Let me say some more about the mathematics of this situation. A common type of model is the SIR model. The dependent variables are S, the number of individuals who are susceptible to infection by the disease, I, the number of individuals who are infected (or infectious, this model ignores the incubation time) and R, the number of individuals who have recovered from the disease and are therefore immune. These three quantities depend on time and satisfy a system of ODE containing a number of parameters. There is a certain combination of these parameters, usually called the basic reproductive rate (or ratio) and denoted by R_0 whose value determines the outcome of the dynamics. If R_0\le 1 the infection dies out – the solution converges to a steady state on the boundary of the state space where I=0. If, on the other hand, R_0>1 there exists a positive steady state, an endemic equilibrium. The stability this of this steady state can be examined by linearizing about it. In fact it is always stable. Interestingly, more is true. When the endemic steady state exists it is globally asymptotically stable. In other words all solutions with positive initial data converge to that steady state at late time. For a proof of this see a paper by Korobeinikov and Wake (Appl. Math. Lett. 15, 955). They use a Lyapunov function to do so. At this point it is appropriate to mention that my understanding of these things has been improved by the hard work of Irena Vogel, who recently wrote her MSc thesis on the subject of Lyapunov functions in population models under my supervision.

 

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