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A biological model for influenza transmission: pandemic planning implications of asymptomatic infection and immunity.

Mathews JD, McCaw CT, McVernon J, McBryde ES, McCaw JM

  • Journal PloS one

  • Published 28 Nov 2007

  • Volume 2

  • ISSUE 11

  • Pagination e1220

  • DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0001220


The clinical attack rate of influenza is influenced by prior immunity and mixing patterns in the host population, and also by the proportion of infections that are asymptomatic. This complexity makes it difficult to directly estimate R(0) from the attack rate, contributing to uncertainty in epidemiological models to guide pandemic planning. We have modelled multiple wave outbreaks of influenza from different populations to allow for changing immunity and asymptomatic infection and to make inferences about R(0).

On the island of Tristan da Cunha (TdC), 96% of residents reported illness during an H3N2 outbreak in 1971, compared with only 25% of RAF personnel in military camps during the 1918 H1N1 pandemic. Monte Carlo Markov Chain (MCMC) methods were used to estimate model parameter distributions.

We estimated that most islanders on TdC were non-immune (susceptible) before the first wave, and that almost all exposures of susceptible persons caused symptoms. The median R(0) of 6.4 (95% credibility interval 3.7-10.7) implied that most islanders were exposed twice, although only a minority became ill in the second wave because of temporary protection following the first wave. In contrast, only 51% of RAF personnel were susceptible before the first wave, and only 38% of exposed susceptibles reported symptoms. R(0) in this population was also lower [2.9 (2.3-4.3)], suggesting reduced viral transmission in a partially immune population.

Our model implies that the RAF population was partially protected before the summer pandemic wave of 1918, arguably because of prior exposure to interpandemic influenza. Without such protection, each symptomatic case of influenza would transmit to between 2 and 10 new cases, with incidence initially doubling every 1-2 days. Containment of a novel virus could be more difficult than hitherto supposed.