November 15, 2004

RTI Hosts Exercise to Simulate Avian Flu Outbreak

Media Contacts

First Test of New U.S. Infectious Disease Modeling System

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- In the first use of a new infectious disease modeling system consortium funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, researchers at RTI International are hosting an exercise to test public health responses to an outbreak of avian flu in a simulated community of 500,000 residents.

The researchers are simulating a community in South East Asia because recent cases of avian flu in people have shown that this is a high risk area for an outbreak.

By simulating the outbreak of this potentially deadly virus in a hypothetical community, researchers hope to answer key questions about how best to contain such outbreaks.

The project is part of a national effort, called the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), through which research teams from four prominent institutions are developing computational models and analytical tools to better explain, predict, and control the interactions between infectious agents and their hosts during infectious disease outbreaks.

The goal of the initiative is to provide policymakers, public health officials, and others within the scientific community with the analytical tools and computer models required to respond effectively to infectious disease outbreaks.

The project is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

In May, a team led by RTI that included researchers from Duke, SAS, and IBM was awarded an $18.8 million grant to develop the web-based portal and a set of computational and analytical tools that comprise the system.

Other researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.; Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.; and Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., were awarded separate grants to develop mathematical models to study various aspects of infectious disease epidemics and community responses.

During the exercise, a high-performance IBM computer system based at RTI will make the complex calculations required to simulate the spread of a possible avian flu outbreak in a hypothetical Southeast Asian community of about 500,000 people living in neighboring small towns.

The computer simulations will incorporate data on population density and age structure, distribution of schools, locations of hospitals and clinics, travel, and the infectiousness of the virus.

Together, this data will allow the researchers to test different intervention strategies that may reduce the rate of transmission between people.

"We can see what would happen if we take certain actions, like vaccinating specific groups, using antiviral medications, restricting travel, or implementing other public health measures," said Irene Eckstrand, Ph.D., MIDAS program officer at NIGMS. "Computer models let us envisage the impact of these decisions in a variety of scenarios."

The ultimate goal of the exercise, added Eckstrand, is to identify disease prevention and control strategies that not only contain the virus, but also quickly drop the number of people infected to zero -- basically eradicating the disease from the human community.

"We want to know how we can most effectively prevent the virus from spreading to other areas," said Eckstrand. "These models will help policymakers design strategies to protect the public from a potentially deadly disease."

For more information about MIDAS and other NIGMS-supported efforts to model infectious diseases, visit

Results from the exercise could be available by early January 2005.