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J Theor Biol. 2005 Mar 7;233(1):91-102. Epub 2004 Nov 13.

The effect of treatment on pathogen virulence.

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  • 1San Francisco Department of Public Health, 101 Grove St., Suite 204, San Francisco, CA, USA.


The optimal virulence of a pathogen is determined by a trade-off between maximizing the rate of transmission and maximizing the duration of infectivity. Treatment measures such as curative therapy and case isolation exert selective pressure by reducing the duration of infectivity, reducing the value of duration-increasing strategies to the pathogen and favoring pathogen strategies that maximize the rate of transmission. We extend the trade-off models of previous authors, and represents the reproduction number of the pathogen as a function of the transmissibility, host contact rate, disease-induced mortality, recovery rate, and treatment rate, each of which may be influenced by the virulence. We find that when virulence is subject to a transmissibility-mortality trade-off, treatment can lead to an increase in optimal virulence, but that in other scenarios (such as the activity-recovery trade-off) treatment decreases the optimal virulence. Paradoxically, when levels of treatment rise with pathogen virulence, increasing control efforts may raise predicted levels of optimal virulence. Thus we show that conflict can arise between the epidemiological benefits of treatment and the evolutionary risks of heightened virulence.

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