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J Theor Biol. 2003 Jun 7;222(3):347-59.

Meningitis, pathogenicity near criticality: the epidemiology of meningococcal disease as a model for accidental pathogens.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK. nks22@cam.ac.uk


We formulate and analyse a model for infectious diseases transmitted by asymptomatic carriers finding, that if harmless and pathogenic strains of the infected agent compete, frequent outbreaks of the pathogenic strains can occur. A counterintuitively high number of clustered outbreaks at low pathogenicity in our model compares well with observations in diseases with severe and often fatal results for the host, as for example in meningitis. These clustered outbreaks can be described by the typical scaling behaviour around criticality. The epidemic model is a susceptible-infected-recovered system (SIR) for the harmless infective agent, acting as a background to a mutant strain Y which occasionally creates severely affected hosts X. The full system of SIRYX is described in the master equation framework, confirming limiting assumptions about a reduced YX-system with the SIR-system in stationarity. In this limiting case we can analytically show convergence to power law scaling typical for critical states, as well as the divergence of the variance of outbreaks near criticality. These large fluctuations of outbreaks of accidental pathogens as mutants of otherwise harmless commensal organisms is the challenging new feature of our model for future epidemiology of diseases like meningococcal disease.

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