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Scientists at the Royal Society summer science exhibition challenge the public to predict the best way to control disease epidemics

30 June 2008

Scientists will be challenging the public this week to pit their powers of prediction against the latest computer simulations. A brand new interactive exhibit will be displayed at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition that showcases the value of mathematical models in the fight to prevent and control diseases such as bluetongue. Members of the public will be invited to come up with ideas for controlling the spread of infectious diseases of crops and livestock, which they can then test to find out if their plans would be likely to work in real life. The exhibition entitled "Are epidemics inevitable? Disease prevention and control in changing landscapes" is funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and involves five scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institute for Animal Health, and Rothamsted Research.

Professor Chris Gilligan from the University of Cambridge said: "Mathematical modelling is crucial to our ability to prevent and control infectious diseases such as bluetongue. We have developed a simple generic computer model with a small number of variables, which can be tailored to a variety of specific infections. We hope that visitors to our exhibition will be able to see how powerful our mathematical model is in disease prevention and control."

Dr Simon Gubbins from the Institute for Animal Health said: "We hope to demonstrate to the public that by using mathematics we can evaluate disease risks and likely direction of outbreaks, establish the need for intervention measures, predict the effectiveness of different control strategies and assist with the optimal allocation of resources between surveillance and intervention."

Dr Erik DeSimone, also from the University of Cambridge, added: "When we are under threat from a possible disease invasion we can use our models to predict what could happen. We can’t say exactly what will happen, but we can say with some confidence what are the chances of different outcomes."

Dr Frank van den Bosch from Rothamsted Research said: "What is difficult in an epidemic such as bluetongue is that by the time signs appear, the disease has often spread quite widely. Our predictive mathematical models allow us to take what we can find out about the outbreak and use that information to test a variety of control strategies before they are actually used in real life. Then we can choose the best strategy or strategies to deal with the epidemic. The interactive part of our exhibition will allow people to see this powerful tool in action and try it for themselves."

Dr Femke van den Berg, also from Rothamsted Research said: "Often, ways of containing infections are counterintuitive. For example, someone might think that for two regions with different levels of infection, resources should be targeted to the region with the higher level but modelling shows that’s not always the case."

These five scientists are leaders in the field of modelling plant and animal diseases and are advisers to the UK and USA on possible disease invasions, ‘Sudden Oak Death’, and diseases that threaten the citrus industry; they will be sharing their knowledge with the public and showing how mathematicians and biologists are working together to understand how crop and livestock diseases spread, and how to predict and control outbreaks.


Notes to editors

The Royal Society summer science exhibition is taking place at The Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG from 6pm Monday 30 June until 4.30pm Thursday 3 July.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

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Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

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