Limits to Forecasting Precision for Outbreaks of Directly Transmitted Diseases
Early warning systems for outbreaks of infectious diseases are an important application of the ecological theory of epidemics. A key variable predicted by early warning systems is the final outbreak size. However, for directly transmitted diseases, the stochastic contact process by which outbreaks develop entails fundamental limits to the precision with which the final size can be predicted.
Methods and Findings
I studied how the expected final outbreak size and the coefficient of variation in the final size of outbreaks scale with control effectiveness and the rate of infectious contacts in the simple stochastic epidemic. As examples, I parameterized this model with data on observed ranges for the basic reproductive ratio (R0) of nine directly transmitted diseases. I also present results from a new model, the simple stochastic epidemic with delayed-onset intervention, in which an initially supercritical outbreak (R0 > 1) is brought under control after a delay.
The coefficient of variation of final outbreak size in the subcritical case (R0 < 1) will be greater than one for any outbreak in which the removal rate is less than approximately 2.41 times the rate of infectious contacts, implying that for many transmissible diseases precise forecasts of the final outbreak size will be unattainable. In the delayed-onset model, the coefficient of variation (CV) was generally large (CV > 1) and increased with the delay between the start of the epidemic and intervention, and with the average outbreak size. These results suggest that early warning systems for infectious diseases should not focus exclusively on predicting outbreak size but should consider other characteristics of outbreaks such as the timing of disease emergence.