Scientists Use Game To Study Infections, Encourage Teamwork
April 5, 2012

Scientists Use Game To Study Infections, Encourage Teamwork

An international team of researchers and scientists are working together to improve the mathematical models used to study outbreaks of AIDS, cholera, and malaria.

They've created a game even children would love call Muizenberg Mathematical Fever. At a 2011 clinic at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Muizenberg, South Africa, attendees participated by passing around slips of paper  with the words “You´ve been infected” written on them.

The game served as a useful tool to study how outbreaks are propagated and spread. The game proved to be an effective way to demonstrate these processes, prompting the journal PLoS ONE to publish a discussion in the April 3rd issue.

Bio-mathematicians study the way infectious diseases are spread in order to create models explaining these movements. However, these models are only effective if they are applied.

Juliet Pulliam, a biologist at the University of Florida´s Emerging Pathogens Institute and co-author of the paper has noticed this behavior. ““¦there has been a tendency for mathematicians to operate separately from practitioners on the ground who track diseases, “ she said in an NSF press release.

The game was designed to do more than present models of how diseases are spread, but also to convince everyone in the epidemiology field about the benefits of teamwork.

The models created by the game will aid public health officials and policy makers in preventing the spread of deadly diseases by detailing how these diseases travel.

“This collaborative effort is training researchers in these techniques,” said Scheiner, “as well as strengthening ties between U.S. and African students and scientists,” said Sam Scheiner, Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“Not knowing how data about an outbreak were collected can lead to misinterpretations.”

For example, if the procedures used to count infected individuals changes each time, the resulting data would be inaccurate.

Collaborations between mathematicians and epidemiologists have been proven to work. Ecologist Steve Bellan of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of the paper recalls HIV interventions and efforts to eliminate trachoma that benefitted from the “tag-team” approach.

“In fact, the two sides typically meet up somewhere along the line during the process of an epidemiological study,” he said. “We want to see more scientists working together from the start.”

This kind of collaboration was crucial in creating the game used to highlight this very point. As the members were preparing for the clinic the night before, they recalled a previous clinic wherein one person got sick, spreading the illness to several other attendees. What resulted was a conversation about capturing data of the way the illness spread and the idea to create the game” Muizenberg Mathematical Fever”.

Several pieces of “infectious” paper were passed at random from attendee to attendee. On the back of the paper were instructions to email Bellan, informing him of their infection. The infected person was then instructed to use a random number generator to calculate how many other people they should “infect”.

Bellan was able to calculate this information to create a model closely resembling a real epidemic. During the second week of the clinic, attendees were able to apply actual data sets from other ongoing studies to the new models.

“Many opted to work with data sets from the game,” said Pulliam, “because they were really tangible.”

This kind of teamwork and results were exactly what the team wanted to get out of the workshops.