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Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Jan 7;278(1702):42-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1107. Epub 2010 Jul 28.

Imitation dynamics of vaccination behaviour on social networks.

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  • 1Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, One Brattle Square, Suite 6, MA 02138, USA.


The problem of achieving widespread immunity to infectious diseases by voluntary vaccination is often presented as a public-goods dilemma, as an individual's vaccination contributes to herd immunity, protecting those who forgo vaccination. The temptation to free-ride brings the equilibrium vaccination level below the social optimum. Here, we present an evolutionary game-theoretic approach to this problem, exploring the roles of individual imitation behaviour and population structure in vaccination. To this end, we integrate an epidemiological process into a simple agent-based model of adaptive learning, where individuals use anecdotal evidence to estimate costs and benefits of vaccination. In our simulations, we focus on parameter values that are realistic for a flu-like infection. Paradoxically, as agents become more adept at imitating successful strategies, the equilibrium level of vaccination falls below the rational individual optimum. In structured populations, the picture is only somewhat more optimistic: vaccination is widespread over a range of low vaccination costs, but coverage plummets after cost exceeds a critical threshold. This result suggests parallels to historical scenarios in which vaccination coverage provided herd immunity for some time, but then rapidly dropped. Our work sheds light on how imitation of peers shapes individual vaccination choices in social networks.

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