U of M Prof drawing connection between math and disease control

University of Manitoba professor Abba Gumel and his team of researchers believe they may be able to save millions of lives using math to predict the spread of infectious diseases, such as AIDS, malaria and most recently, H1N1.

The team begins with a basic compartmental model, a type of mathematical model used to describe the way energies or materials are transmitted through the compartments of a system, and applies it to the details of the disease.

“The mathematics basically serves as presentation of the disease transmission process. The model we have is a representation of what’s going on out there, so we capture the entire process into a mathematical model. Our model is the presentation of the approximation of the disease transmission process,” said Gumel.

Gumel believes this kind of modeling has the potential to predict outbreaks of disease more effectively and determine the best place of action to control the disease, something extremely important in the age of globalization.

‘The outbreak of diseases in other countries are directly relevant to what’s happening here in Canada because we’re all vulnerable to what’s happening elsewhere. [ . . . ] That’s even more reason why we should be doing this modeling,” explained Gumel.

Using the right data, the models can accurately predict the rate at which a disease will spread once the outbreak has already occurred.

“Maybe you can have an estimation of how long it will take if you have an outbreak in Asia, say, before it hits North America, that kind of thing. You can design models that can give you a good indication of that.”

The information generated from these models is extremely valuable to public health officials as a cost effective method of predicting the impact of an outbreak.

“To do the experiment using hospital equipment it cost millions of dollars, but if you can model a very realistic, very good mathematical model [ . . . ], then without any cost, you can just predict.”

“If there is an outbreak, [ . . . ] these are the measures, the key [parameters], so that we can control the disease,” said Chandra Podder, a PhD student who is part of Gumel’s research team.

Although the use of mathematical models to predict the spread of disease has been used by mathematicians in the past and is currently used by health officials across the world, Gumel’s research is particularly unique. What sets it apart is it’s collaboration with various experts in different disciplines in order to construct the most realistic model possible.

“It becomes unique because you need somebody who has a love for mathematics, but at the same time can understand biology, and bringing people from different disciplines together to work with them, so it becomes a very unique team, and I haven’t heard of anything like that,” said Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research) at the University of Manitoba.

Gumel and his team feel close to this project because of its potential to help millions of people across the globe.

“I am so fortunate [ . . . ] to be part of this because we’re trying to do something for humanity,” said Gumel.

“These diseases are killing millions and millions of people, and causing lots and lots of socio-economic damage across the world, so if I could help in a way to reduce this damage or eliminate this, especially in countries where they don’t have enough resources” explaining those are the regions hit hardest by infectious disease.

“If we can provide deeper insight through modeling, that for me would be very self-fulfilling.”
Mudassar Imran, one of Gumel’s post-doctoral fellows, stated that he felt proud to be working on a project that could have this kind of positive impact on humanity.

“If we can give back something to humanity, to this community and this country, that’s would be great. I am very delighted to be part of this team,” said Imran.