Kiwi software fights 21st century plagues

Massey University's EpiCentre epidemiology center is helping fight avian influenza using state-of-the-art software.

The EpiCentre is one of the largest software developers in the epidemiology field. In the 1990s, it built EpiMAN, a decision support system used to help scientists fight an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the U.K. Now the team has developed InterSpread Plus, a modeling framework designed to help authorities control bird flu.

"This software models any contagious disease," says Roger Morris, co-director of the EpiCentre. "Basically, what we can do is to give the model the characteristics of any contagious disease, such as bird flu, foot and mouth disease or SARS."

The software takes the population of animals into account and models the true spatial geography of the country, he says.

"So, in the case of avian influenza we represent all the poultry farms, backyard type poultry and the other types of birds that risk getting bird flu."

The EpiCentre sells the software to various organizations, and it also provides consulting services. The team has recently built a model representing the British poultry population for the U.K. government.

The software has also been sold to Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Argentina. Morris is about to leave for Vietnam, and later the U.K., to assist with rolling out the software.

The software works out different scenarios based on the information it is given.

"The framework allows you to describe the disease — how transmissible it is, how fatal it is, how infective it is to different animal types," says Bryan O'Leary, software development manager at the EpiCentre.

The software allows the user to describe the domain — for example a list of farms. There are a number of sections for input on how the disease might spread, how efficient a country would be in finding the disease and controlling it, says O'Leary. The software makes calculations based on that data and comes up with a prediction of the future.

InterSpread Plus predicts that the risk of a substantial epidemic in Britain is low, according to Morris.

"It's not out of the question, but if it does happen, it would be associated with non-commercial poultry, not with commercial poultry," he says.

In Asia the risk of a large outbreak is greater because of the lack of control, he says.

"On the other hand, you can with relatively simple control measures get the number down to only a few [infected] flocks."

Morris thinks North America is probably already infected or is close to becoming infected, but that it will not be detected for some time.

InterSpread Plus is built using Visual Basic and C++. The GIS (geographic information system) is built inside Microsoft Access, says Morris.

When the older version of the system, EpiMAN, was used to control the foot and mouth disease in the U.K. in 2001, the software predicted at an early stage the scale and the duration of the epidemic, says Morris.

"And the real epidemic was in our predicted range," he says.

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